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  • Writer's pictureTim Kashani

5 Virtual Reality Practices to Aid in Mental Wellness

The BroadVersity team recommends 5 virtual reality practices for Mental Health Awareness Month

We here at BroadVersity take mental health very seriously.

The research exists—the studies are there, but before we get into the facts about mental wellness and virtual reality we wanted to talk about our personal experiences.

How has virtual reality and VR performing helped those directly connected with our organization? As you’re no doubt aware, live performance and the entire performing arts industry was all but decimated by the pandemic. COVID-19 came in and shut down our theaters, tearing us away from one another and thrusting us into the world of zoom performances and online readings. As our co-founder Pamela says, the alternative was acting with your cat—and they’re not the best of scene partners.

Additionally, over the course of the pandemic, global prevalence of anxiety and depression skyrocketed. In the Fall of 2020, we teamed up with Citrone 33 to aid in the mental health of college students by launching Unpack U, seeking to foster a culture of virtual campus community emphasizing the importance of mental well-being. Our most successful initiative, U Prize, gave students and faculty in Pittsburgh the opportunity to pitch their mental wellness initiatives to us for funding, support, mentorship, and amplification. Without direct experience in the mental wellness field, we were able to get a grasp on which stories and ideas uplifted others during challenging times.

Virtual reality gave forlorn performers the chance to commune with one another again in a very real way. Rather than stare at a screen and see your cast mates in Brady Bunch style boxes, you could walk up to them, reach out to them, touch them, hear them in varying degrees of audibility depending on how close or far you were to or from them. Felt good!

And the cast wasn’t alone in these experiences. We wrote previously in our burn-out article about how one friend snuck through the veil and into the pre-show warm-ups during our show Winter Lights. She found herself in her seat, where she would sit in a physical theatre, and broke into tears of joy, feeling like she was in the most authentically theatrical experience she’d had since the start of the pandemic.

Putting theatrical works aside, as The Mental Elf says, “from a therapeutic perspective, being able to control experiences in a virtual environment, particularly under supervision by a therapist, offers a lot of potential.” Studies continue to be conducted on a variety of therapeutic uses for virtual reality, including exposure therapy. The Conversation notes, “Not only is VR more practical, but people are generally more willing to enter virtual versions of the situations they find anxiety-provoking because they know it’s only a simulation.” Which makes a lot of sense. The focus on mental wellness extends past what anyone could have imagined ten years ago. As millennials and Gen X-ers focus on healing, UC Irvine just received what is believed to be their largest philanthropic donation ever, specifically set aside for depression research. 55 MILLION dollars, centered on mental health.

Outside of working with a licensed therapist, there are a number of other virtual activities that can buoy your mental health. The VR community is taking the concept so seriously that Vive has even made a pair of glasses specifically for immersive “on the go wellness.” It’s called the HTC Flow, and they’re pretty cool. The only downside is that they’re only Android compliant right now, but it just goes to show what can be done and what is being done.

With all this in mind, we bring you 5 Virtual Reality Practices to Aid in Mental Wellness:

1. Personal Meditation Apps

A recent Bustle article by Anna Samson beautifully reviews what virtual reality meditation really feels like. You can read all about it here, but what stuck out to us most was “Above the Clouds” from Liminal. The author describes it as, “Floating weightlessly miles above the Earth, I look down to see pink cotton candy clouds beneath me.”

Who doesn’t want that?! Sign me up for some cotton candy cloud covered peace.

This said, we never want to mislead you, our readers, into believing we think VR has reached perfection. No, there are pitfalls, which are also described in understandable detail by Anna when she says, “Meditating in virtual reality isn’t quite the perfect experience. Some days, the headset pressed awkwardly against my nose, leaving me with some charming ski-mask style marks. At the end of each session, my eyes felt tired from watching the close-up screen.” Ugh, relatable content right there. Still, she goes on… “But VR meditation has helped me to find an escape.” And that’s what we’re looking for, that escape.

Needless to say, there are a ton more meditation apps, and you have to find what works for you. Everyone is different, but using virtual reality as a tool to block out distractions while accessing this practice is something a lot of people can relate to.

There are even meditation games, like Deep VR! Whatever you’re after, if it doesn’t exist today, the developers are working on it—we assure you.

2. Group, Guided Meditation

If what you’re craving relates to the feeling you read above about meditation, but the pandemic has you missing the communal aspect, what about group sessions?

This came as a suggestion directly from co-founder Pamela. During the height of the pandemic, she joined a few guided sessions and noted the following: “you were in a group, and you found a seat in a pleasant setting.  You had to show up live at the proper time. It made you feel part of a collective which was very nice.”

You can sign up on the EvolVR website, and meet their instructors to find your perfect match before you jump in.

3. VR Guided Tai Chi

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Tai chi is an ancient Chinese tradition that, today, is practiced as a graceful form of exercise.” It’s done worldwide by people of all ages, with a whole host of benefits including: decreased stress and anxiety, improved mood, better sleep, increased stability and flexibility, and reduced risk of falling in older adults.

Kids might know it as those weird motions you see the grandmas doing in the park early in the morning when you’re driving to school—but it’s good for everyone!

Guided Tai Chi in VR allows you to be immersed in nature (another activity known to improve mental wellness), and provides hand tracking for the important motions of the practice.

4. Visit The Great Outdoors

Speaking of getting out into nature. You can do that, too! Stuck in the city, unable to get out for that hike you’ve been craving to clear your head? No problem, VR has you covered there, as well.

For anyone missing the great outdoors, Nature Treks allows you to get up close and personal with the animals and sounds of the environments you’ve been missing. You can even control the weather, and time of day! Wow.

Say goodbye to subway rats and the sounds of taxis honking at jay-walkers and hello to rustling leaves or the whistles and clicks of a dolphin.

But this isn’t just a win for those looking to escape the daily grind. If you’re one of many who are unable to get out and traipse around in the forest for one reason or another, virtual reality provides an accessible alternative. You can experience these things from your home, even your chair if need be.

The same can be said for additional experiences like National Geographic Explore VR, and Wander. Find which is best for you!

5. Exercise!

Time to get moving! Just because it's in headset, doesn't mean the effects aren't real. Games like Beat Saber are played by people of all ages, but the VR options for workouts are expanding daily. You can do a little boxing with LiteBoxer or some HIIT work in with FitXR (they even have dance!).

Yogic practices have long been held as a combination of physical and mental wellness. No different in VR! Apps like Home YogaVR (noted as good for beginners) give an alternative to running out to that yoga class while still reaping the benefits.

If you’re feeling really out-of-the-box you can join HoloFit which pairs the Oculus with a variety of exercise tools like rowing and bike machines.

Happy Mental Health Awareness Month, friends. These factors hold importance all year round, just because we’re introducing you to these apps now doesn’t mean you can’t continue to use them throughout your time in VR.

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