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21:47 06/09/2022

Virtual training can reduce psychological stress and anxiety

Previous research has demonstrated that virtual training produces immediate cognitive and neural benefits. A new study suggests that a similar virtual training can also reduce psychosocial stress and anxiety, building on previous findings.

The Smart-Aging Research Center (IDAC) of Tohoku University published their findings on May 23, 2022 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Physical activity is beneficial to our overall health. For some, however, such as neurological patients, those with cardiovascular disease, and hospitalized patients, physical activity is impractical or even dangerous. However, similar effects can be achieved through Immersive Virtual Reality (IVR).

Academics are interested in IVR due to its potential application for clinical purposes, as it allows the user to experience a virtual world through a virtual body.

In a previous study, the researchers discovered that viewing a virtual body in motion displayed in first-person perspective induces physiological changes. The young participants' heart rates increased/decreased in tandem with the virtual movements, despite the fact that they remained stationary. Thus, acute cognitive and neural benefits occurred, just as they would after actual physical activity. In a follow-up study, the same benefits were found in healthy elderly participants after six weeks of twice-weekly 20-minute sessions.


Virtual training can reduce psychological stress and anxiety

In the current study, the researchers investigated the effect of virtual training on stress, adding a new dimension to the positive effects of virtual training. While seated, young, healthy subjects were exposed to a first-person perspective virtual training simulation that created the illusion of movement ownership.

The avatar ran for 30 minutes at 6,4 km/h. Before and after the virtual training, the researchers induced and evaluated the psychosocial stress response by measuring salivary alpha-amylase, a crucial biomarker of neuroendocrine stress levels. Similarly, they distributed a subjective questionnaire for anxiety. Comparable to the effects of actual exercise, the virtual training resulted in a reduced psychosocial stress response and decreased anxiety levels.

"Psychosocial stress represents the stress experienced in frequent social situations such as social judgment, rejection, and when our performances get evaluated," says Professor Dalila Burin, who developed the study. "While a moderate amount of exposure to stress might be beneficial, repeated and increased exposure can be detrimental to our health. This kind of virtual training represents a new frontier, especially in countries like Japan, where high performance demands and an aging population exist."

Journal Reference: Dalila Burin, Gabriele Cavanna, Daniela Rabellino, Yuka Kotozaki, Ryuta Kawashima. Neuroendocrine Response and State Anxiety Due to Psychosocial Stress Decrease after a Training with Subject’s Own (but Not Another) Virtual Body: An RCT Study. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2022; 19 (10): 6340 DOI: 10.3390/ijerph19106340

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