The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently reported that the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a 25% increase in depression and anxiety worldwide.
Mindfulness has been used as a treatment for common mental disorders. It is a popular therapeutic tool because it has been shown to be an effective treatment for many common mental disorders, particularly those related to anxiety, depression, and stress. Now, it is growing among corporations and schools as a tool to handle stress and aid relaxation.
A Brief History Of Mindfulness
Jon Kabat Zinn introduced mindfulness as we know today in 1979 as part of his “Mindfulness Stress Reduction Program”. This was a secularised version of mindfulness that he adapted for a stress reduction clinic’s outpatients. (Kabat-Zinn, J., 2003, p.148). Kabat-Zinn had himself trained under Buddhist monks and returned to the West, adapting the teachings he learned to apply them within his clinical psychology practise. (Jon Kabat-Zinn, n.d.)
It was so successful that Mindfulness is now an integrated part of clinical psychology as “mindfulness-based interventions” (MBI). It's used to treat common mental disorders such as anxiety disorders (Evans, S. et al, 2008, Strauss, C., et al, 2014, Hofmann, S. and Gómez, A., 2017, Liu, X., et al, 2021), depression (Shapero, B., et al, 2018, Strauss, C., et al, 2014), eating disorders (O’Reilly, G. A., et al, 2015, Dunne, J., 2018 ), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (Key, B. L., et al 2017) and relapse prevention for addictive behaviours (Bowen, S., 2014).
But this secularised Mindfulness has not remained in the clinical settings and was soon commercialised. Now, Mindfulness is a billion-dollar industry.
The app market is currently over-saturated with products related to mindfulness/meditation. Experts predict a 41% expansion over the next 6 years within this sector. The accessibility of these apps is far greater than traditional methods in terms of ease of access, use, and affordability. Additionally, Gen Z is more likely to use such applications to treat their ailing mental health issues as alternative forms of treatment. (Tailor Made Reports, 2022).
Nevertheless, the apps currently on the market tend to be passive and limited in their approach and many are the same product rebranded. This can lead to apps that tend to be deleted right after downloading since users feel they lack guidance on “how” to actually meditate. (Lowrey, A, 2021). In this particular aspect Virtual Reality (VR) and Human-Computer-Interaction can enhance Mindfulness by gamifying it.
Mindfulness In The 21st Century
VR is unique as it has a sense of immersion and presence unlike any other technology currently available. One of the ways this can be further enhanced is through adding interactions to further solidify a person’s sense of presence or immersion in the experience. As Virtual Reality is a multimedia experience we can employ different media together to further enhance the experience, perhaps to aid the sense of presence, or immersion, or to help achieve the goal of what it is we are trying to do – for example, if we wish to make a game about relaxation, we can create a calm virtual world, and employ relaxing sounds, create relaxing animations, etc.
However, VR is also known as a gaming device and learning through games is very useful. When we play video games, we are constantly learning new skills – but we don’t recognise this as learning new skills, despite the new behaviours we learn and perform each time we defeat a "new boss". (TEDx Talks, 2018)
Similarly, researchers found that when people play games such as Call of Duty, a high-stress game where a second’s delay in decision-making can mean life or death, they learn skills that benefit their lives outside of the game, such as decision-making under pressure. (Boyle, E., et al, 2011)
Perhaps, in the words of Mark Rober, if we can reframe the experience of mindfulness, we can help teach it (or rather, others may be able to learn it better). By adding elements of gamification, such as a rewards system or a “score”, we can reinforce learning of what is “positive” or “negative” for mindfulness.
Before we add gaming elements to mindfulness, we first need to understand precisely what mindfulness is. The consensus, in keeping with its Buddhist roots, is that mindfulness is being “present at the moment”, “non-judgment” and “awareness of the present moment”. With this in mind, it could be considered that the “winning” state is “focused” and the “losing” state is “distracted”.
To emphasise this, we could add gaming elements, such as a progress bar and feedback sounds to illustrate to the user that “focusing” is “good” and “distracted” is “bad”, and in this way, users might gain a better understanding of how to be mindful through this interactive, gamified process along with the visual feedback.
One of the most common things you’ll hear in any mindfulness meditations is the idea that our thoughts are something transient and/or ephemeral. In mindfulness meditations, thoughts are often likened to things like clouds or moving trains. These metaphors for our thoughts are there to emphasise the idea that our thoughts are transient too, and that we can observe them, don’t get attached or judge them, or be distracted by them.
Since we are doing this in virtual reality, we can visually create these “distraction” objects that can represent our thoughts in the world. Providing this visual stimulus, and pairing it with guided mindfulness meditations that play in the experience help anchor the user in the present moment, and allow them to acknowledge their thoughts while prompting them to focus on the “good”.
This approach to learning mindfulness might be more universal compared to traditional methods, with an estimated 2.5 billion people playing video games in 2016 (Georgiev, D., 2022), compared to the estimated 200-500 million globally who meditate (Mindworks, n.d.).
Mindfulness was adapted from its ancient Buddhist roots to be integrated into psychotherapy. Today, it is recognised as an effective way to cope with stress and alleviate the symptoms of common mental disorders. The results speak for themselves and they have helped mindfulness secure its place as a multibillion dollar industry, helping corporations, places of education, and even individuals deal with stress in a non-invasive and useful way.
Although the wellness app market is expected to grow by 41%, many of the current apps struggle to teach how to meditate or teach mindfulness, and have problems retaining customers. Smartphone technologies hold the potential for considerable growth due to their accessibility and ease of access, however the mindfulness smartphone apps lack the engagement or customer retention.
If we investigate how to make mindfulness more engaging, perhaps by looking at immersive content that is interactive, we can find a solution to the current problems of the Wellness app market.
This is one of the things we are currently researching at The VR Hive, to investigate if this is a useful way to help teach mindfulness and to promote relaxation. If you would be interested in learning more, and if you’d like to get your hands on our latest development, get in touch to become a Beta tester. We’re always on the lookout for individuals with a passion for innovation and disruptive technologies.
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