A new therapy that transports patients into a virtual world has been found to help people with depression.
During the therapy, patients wear a headset that projects a life-sized, virtual avatar of themselves in front of them.
They "embody" the avatar, in that it responds to their movements.
The patients then see a second avatar, this time of a crying child, and are asked to comfort the virtual youngster.
In a new study, led by researchers at University College London, participants who had previously been diagnosed with depression were found to benefit from the experience.
During the study 15 people who were all being treated by the NHS for depression put on the headsets.
While they embodied the adult avatar, participants were instructed to express compassion towards the distressed virtual child.
As they talked to the child it appeared to gradually stop crying and respond positively to the compassion.
After a few minutes the patients were instead embodied in the virtual child and saw the adult avatar deliver their own compassionate words and gestures to them.
This brief eight-minute scenario was repeated three times at weekly intervals, and patients were followed up a month later.
The researchers found that those involved in the study learned to be more compassionate towards themselves and as a result their symptoms of depression improved.
"People who struggle with anxiety and depression can be excessively self-critical when things go wrong in their lives," study lead Professor Chris Brewin said in a statement.
"In this study, by comforting the child and then hearing their own words back, patients are indirectly giving themselves compassion.
"The aim was to teach patients to be more compassionate towards themselves and less self-critical, and we saw promising results.
"A month after the study, several patients described how their experience had changed their response to real-life situations in which they would previously have been self-critical."
The researchers have said more testing is needed before this type of therapy becomes standard for people with mental health issues.
Co-author Professor Mel Slater added: "We now hope to develop the technique further to conduct a larger controlled trial, so that we can confidently determine any clinical benefit.
"If a substantial benefit is seen, then this therapy could have huge potential. The recent marketing of low-cost home virtual reality systems means that methods such as this could potentially be part of every home and be used on a widespread basis."
The full study is published in the British Journal of Psychiatry Open.
Do you have persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness that have lingered for at least two weeks and occur throughout the day, every day or nearly every day? Are these feelings interfering with school or work, or your relationships? This is a key symptom of clinical depression. We all have negative thoughts from time to time, and it’s natural to be sad when there is a serious event in our lives, like a death. The difference with clinical depression is that the feelings stick around and interfere with your ability to live your life day to day.
Many people with depression find it difficult to get out of bed — and we're not just talking about hitting the snooze button. For some, getting up seems nearly impossible. They may also find themselves spending unusual amounts of time in bed throughout the day, or having trouble with normal activities because of fatigue.
As tired as you may be, if you’re depressed you might also have trouble sleeping. Marked changes in sleeping patterns, like insomnia or increased time spent sleeping, is another symptom of clinical depression.
Some people either gain or lose weight when they have clinical depression because of their change in appetite. For some, this means an increase in appetite and possibly weight gain as a result. Others lose their appetite and struggle to eat much at all. In either case, a significant change is worth investigating.
We all have times when we feel a bit more introverted than usual, but when people have clinical depression, they can lose the sense of pleasure they used to get from their favourite activities or from engaging with others. This isolation can make it harder for friends and loved ones to see the other symptoms of depression a person may be exhibiting, which makes it more difficult to know when a person needs help.
It’s more often thought of as a symptom of ADHD, but an inability to concentrate or hold focus on one’s activities can be a sign of clinical depression. Of course, if someone with clinical depression is also having trouble sleeping, not eating well or has lost interest in regular activities, this symptom can be amplified.
This is the most serious symptom of depression, says Dr. Joe Taravella, a psychologist and the supervisor of Rusk’s Pediatric Psychology Service at NYU-Langone Medical Center in New York. “When you’re severely depressed, suicidal thoughts can become so prominent, you begin to make a plan for ending your life, as you feel there are no other options.” If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, seek help or tell a trusted person in your life and ask for help — call your doctor, call 911, or go to an emergency room. And never assume that a person who talks about suicide won’t do it. If someone tells you they are feeling suicidal or discusses plans to end their life, always take it seriously and get help.
“Many people don’t realize that low levels of chronic irritability and anger can mask an underlying depression,” Taravella says, “which can be undiagnosed and untreated for years.” A study released last year found that more than half of men and women who were experiencing a major depressive episode reported irritability as a symptom. Constant irritability is also a symptom of depression seen in teenagers and children, one that could be written off as normal growing pains or teenage behaviour.
Yes, depression can literally hurt. There is increasing recognition of the physical symptoms of depression, which include headaches, stomach pain, and back pain. One study found half of patients with depression from around the world reported unexplained physical symptoms. But because these physical symptoms are often vague or have no logical explanation, they can be missed as as symptom of depression.
For people with severe depression, basic tasks of self care can seem too overwhelming to undertake, Taravella says. As well, personal hygiene may seem unimportant if you are feeling hopeless or worthless. If someone in your life is showing a marked decrease in personal hygiene, don’t assume they are simply lazy.
Going along with trouble with concentration, people with clinical depression often have memory issues that can add to their difficulties in maintaining day-to-day activities. “As a result of these symptoms, they are more likely to become inattentive to their environment and prone to falls and injuries,” he adds. A 2013 study found that this could be because clinical depression impairs the process of “pattern separation,” which is the ability to distinguish between things and experiences that are similar.
Some people who show signs of depression engage in what Taravella refers to as “externalizing behaviours,” which include substance abuse and risk-taking activities. Men are more likely to do it, he says. These behaviours can be a sign of an underlying mental-health problem, particularly if they’re out of the ordinary for the individual.
“If you recognize symptoms of depression, take action and immediately seek professional help,” Taravella advises. There are valuable resources out there, he says, including psychotherapy and antidepressants. Many people also find some relief with meditation and exercise, often in conjunction with other treatments. It can be difficult to navigate the process of finding the right help, especially if you are having trouble just getting out of bed. Try talking to a trusted friend or family member who can help you research options and even call a therapist for you.
It can take time for depression treatments to start making a difference, which is frustrating when you've taken the difficult step of admitting you need help. But while you work on medication and/or therapy, there are things you can do. Be as active as you can, Taravella says, and try to see friends. “Create small goals for yourself each week but don’t put a lot of pressure on yourself,” he suggests. While it can take time for depression symptoms to begin to lift, it may be worth seeking different treatment options if you are not seeing any improvement after two months.
“The best way to help someone who is depressed is to be a constant source of support for them,” Taravella says. This can sometimes be difficult, however, because people with depression tend to isolate themselves despite your efforts to stay in touch and/or get involved. You may also be able to help someone by making a doctor’s appointment for them. It’s a simple task to request an appointment, but for someone who is severely depressed it can seem incredibly daunting.