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“The Benefits of Finding Mindfulness in Virtual Reality” by Jack Ramage

Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.

Time and time again, mindfulness has been shown to be a helpful mechanism to benefit our mental wellbeing.

Although the pandemic is showing signs of subsiding, it’s left a toll on the mental health of countless individuals in society. Now, more than ever, it’s important to use new technologies to make mindfulness more accessible. Although the app market has become saturated with mindfulness and meditation apps, few have made the leap into the rapidly growing virtual reality market.

Ben*, a 22-year-old student from Edinburgh has dealt with anxiety since he was a teen. When it’s bad,

“it’s like a blanket, covering all aspects of my life” he notes, “in some occasions, I’d have to cancel plans and miss lectures just to cope.”

That was until one evening when Ben stumbled upon a VR game that would alter his life substantially.

That VR game, or experience, was DeepStatesVR: a virtual reality software with an abundance of virtual environments which are, according to developer Marc Zimmermann, “designed to calm your mind and drift away.” There is no set win or lose mechanic in DeepStatesVR – it’s a portal into another environment, an experience that can be a valuable retreat from the, often overwhelming, outside world.

Although still in the early stages of development, one environment stood out to Ben above the rest: a level fittingly named ‘A Bliss of Solitude’. Once inside the environment, you’re met with a soothing voice which leads you on a guided meditation session. “It really clicked with me. It is also a kind of musical experience, once you spawn into the world it will ask you to start humming, and your hum will be enhanced by the experience back into your ears in a really beautiful way.” Ben says.

Although it hasn’t completely cured his anxiety, it has helped Ben develop powerful breathing techniques at times when it’s most needed. He explains how he’s been able to apply the lessons taught by DeepStates VR in the real world, in particular the mindfulness breathing techniques ‘The Bliss of Solitude’ offers. “It’s greatly benefited my daily life” he notes, “sometimes when I’m in crowded spaces and feel myself becoming anxious I try to envision myself in the virtual environment [and the] calming feelings it brings.”

Marc highlights how one of the most frequent compliments he receives is that DeepStatesVR allows them “to practice going into a meditative state on a regular basis”. It’s a powerful, behavioural tool in which people can establish habits to benefit their mental health. He adds, that unlike a “structured guided meditation by a practitioner – the game allows you to escape into a VR world whenever an individual feels like it, meaning you don’t rely on a strict schedule”. It adds a level of flexibility and autonomy, “it’s something people enjoy because it’s optional – not forced on an individual at a certain point in time.”

He notes one of the most touching responses he’s had from a fan of his game came in the early stages of development. On discord, he was approached by an anonymous individual who mentioned how his mental health condition made it difficult to hear the sound of his own voice. “The element of audio feedback, hearing yourself humming in the guided meditation stage, allowed this person to get used to the sound of his own voice.” He was able to hear his voice without feeling negative emotions. “That was really touching,” Marc adds.

Of course, there are downsides to placing therapeutic value on virtual reality. The largest obstacle to VR is the price: not only are the virtual reality devices themselves costly but often expensive computers are needed to run the software. However, for those fortunate enough to be able to possess the hardware, stepping into a virtual dimension to focus on the present can be incredibly valuable.

* Individual has been given a pseudonym to protect their identity.

Jack Ramage is a freelance features journalist based in Manchester, UK.

With an MA in Journalism and a BSc in Psychology, he covers social issues, culture and mental health. You can follow him on Twitter here.