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Take a DEEP Breath: VR & Psychology

DEEP, a virtual reality game that transports you to a mysterious underwater world - controlled by your very breath. The game helps users perfect their diaphragmatic breathing technique in order to relieve stress levels, anxiety and mild depression. Although deep breathing has been a technique used throughout the ages as a form of meditation and as a remedy to alleviate stress and anxiety, many of us are not well versed on this rewarding technique. Dive into DEEP VR and let yourself be transported ‘under the sea’ where you will find peace of mind. All you need is a virtual reality headset and a custom DEEP breathing controller!

Author: Siphilele Magagula

Image: Courtesy of Pexels

Deep breaths, the layman’s immediate prescription during stressful situations. You often find that in difficult times, people will advise you to ‘take a deep breath’...

Although it seems like an overused term, in stressful situations taking a deep breath is a wise course of action. According to Clinical Psychologist Juli Fraga, who also has training in mindfulness, diaphragmatic breathing can help intense sensations, experiences and emotions feel less threatening. There are also health benefits such as lower blood pressure, reduced heart rate as well as relaxed muscles. Makes you wonder why we do not do this often!

DEEP has been developed to help us do just that, with the mind bending visual benefits of virtual reality. This game makes your breath the focal point as the user needs to engage their breath in order to navigate the deep underwater world, highlighting the importance and powerful effect diaphragmatic breathing has on the body.

What is DEEP VR?

Described as ‘virtual scuba diving’ , the game takes the user on an ultra realistic quest to discover the deep blue see and like no other game out there – the controller is your very own breath. You get to control the movements in the game with each exhale and inhale. Inhaling sends you soaring upwards, while exhaling sends your gliding downwards - deeper underwater, and no diving certification is necessary. The deeper your breaths, the further you are taken into the wondrous whimsical world down under. Words cannot adequately depict the marvels of this innovation, take a look at DEEP VR.

Images displaying the DEEP VR Controller. Courtesy of DEEP VR

Psychology x Tech = DEEP VR

At the time when the groundbreaking Oculus Rift came out, DEEP Creator Owen Harris, a game designer and avid meditator had been suffering from anxiety and bouts of depression. He sought to create a personal meditation aid to assist him in his practice. He had been practicing meditation and breathing techniques for a period of 15 years, in a bid to help manage his anxiety and depression. Initially he wanted to create a digital Zen garden which would serve as a virtual realm he could escape to and unwind after a hard day. What began as a personal passion project caught the attention of many interested in the concept, which led Harris to developing his idea into a tool for a wider audience.

Harris partnered with fellow game designer Niki Smit to further develop the game. The pair are currently working with a team of designers and psychologists, one of them being Isabela Granic - Professor and Chair of the Developmental Psychopathology department in the Behavioural Science Institute at Radboud University (the Netherlands). Granic, after experiencing an early version of the game proposed the integration of additional evidence based anxiety-reduction techniques. Some of these techniques include exposure therapy and modeling methods derived from clinical and behavioural science. These methods have been translated into the game’s mechanics, which encourage users to practice managing and eventually overcoming their anxiety and depression through game play. Players are able to gradually train themselves to manage their stress and anxiety by breathing their way deeper into the crevices of the game’s underwater realm. With every deep breath a new corner of the underworld is revealed to them, while simultaneously reducing the tension and anxiety within.

Images courtesy of Pexels

It is important to note that the aim of DEEP is not to eradicate the user’s anxiety or depressive feelings, but to train them to be able to tackle their emotional shifts. The creators’ hope is that with repeated DEEP sessions, users will gain the ‘muscle memory’ of deep diaphragmatic breathing, arming them with the ability to cope through stressful situations by engaging this technique.

The introduction of the virtual reality element to diaphragmatic breathing is essential in that it allows the user to be transported to another dimension - underwater, enabling them to mentally separate themselves from whatever difficult ordeal and solely focus on their breathing, thus eliminating any distractions. In over stimulated and chaotic environments like busy cities, such attainable portable tools that allow for an escape could be a catalyst to a positive effect on the mental health of diverse demographics. This is another example of the endless possibilities to problem solving when science, design and technology come together.

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