Beyond entertainment: Virtual reality to ease anxiety no longer just sci-fi stuff

A psychology professor and students are working on a project to help people escape the stress of day-to-day life or traumatic situations by throwing on a pair of VR goggles.

Calgary professor, students hope to pioneer treatment using virtual realty

Researchers explore virtual reality's potential to reduce anxiety

6 years ago
Duration 0:30
A psychology professor and students are working on a project to help people escape the stress of day-to-day life or traumatic situations by throwing on a pair of VR goggles.

"You can hear the seagulls," Amanda Chodak said, momentarily transported away from the small computer room inside Mount Royal University's psychology department.

Outside the window, the Calgary campus grounds were covered in snow, with a temperature that felt like –30 C.

But thanks to the VR goggles covering her eyes, Chodak was on a beach in California, listening to birds flying overhead, and waves lapping the shore.

As participants experience a more immersive version of this beach scene, the study's authors can look at the individual images projected to each of the user's eyes on a nearby computer screen. (Colin Hall/CBC)

The psychology major is one of more than 80 participants so far in a study by honours student Josh Stewart and his supervisor, associate professor Anthony Chaston, into virtual reality's potential in relieving anxiety.

Stewart and Chaston measure stress by having volunteers fill out an online questionnaire before throwing the goggles on.

"I feel at ease," "I am worried" and "I am self-confident" were among the statements Chodak had to qualify with answers ranging from "not at all" to "very much so."

"Finals are coming up and it's the end of the semester," said Chodak, explaining she was quite stressed before walking into the computer lab.

Hope for those in hospital

"We know that there's some [psychological] research that shows that being exposed to natural environments and relaxing environments will lower anxiety levels," said Chaston, explaining the genesis of the project.

As a concept, virtual reality is just recently starting to make its way out of sci-fi movies such as Total Recall or The Matrix and into consumer households, but still largely as entertainment, the stuff of immersive video games.

Mount Royal University professor Anthony Chaston is supervising the study. He hopes it can one day lead to anxiety treatment for hospital patients. (Colin Hall/CBC)

With their project, Stewart and Chaston let visitors walk around in serene settings such as the aforementioned beach, as well as a Japanese zen garden or a mountain.

"We need to have it experimentally tested so it's reliable, it's valid and we know its content will help people," said Chaston.

There are still lots of questions to think about, too, and potentially as many variables as there are people.

"A 16-year-old kid in a hospital is going to want a very different experience, an escapist experience," he said.

For now, visitors just take in the environment around them.

Chaston wants to take it to the next level, too, allowing people to undertake small tasks within the worlds they visit.

"Wouldn't it be great," he said, imagining the kid in the hospital, "if we could have him go on a little, hour-long African safari where he could take pictures of that environment when he's in there, post those to his Facebook, share that with his friends?"

That's still far away.

Chaston and Stewart will have more students to test after the holiday break, and more results to analyze.

But what they have found is already proving promising.

After they finish their VR tour, students fill out another online questionnaire about anxiety. Their answers are compared with the first one they'd completed before throwing the goggles on.

To statements such as "I feel nervous," "I feel confused," and "I feel jittery," Chodak unhesitatingly selected the "not at all" option.

Participants in the study fill out online anxiety questionnaires both before and after their VR experiences. (Colin Hall/CBC )

"I definitely felt that after I was in the serene environment of the beaches, and with, like, the waves coming in, totally felt that any stress I had was gone," she said.

She said she would love to virtually visit the beach everyday before going to bed.

With files from Carolyn Dunn