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Virtual Reality (VR) and Eating Disorder Recovery

Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that can have life-threatening consequences. Types of eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder. Eating disorders are connected with behaviours such as restrictive eating or avoidance of certain foods, binge eating, purging through vomiting or laxative abuse, and compulsive exercise. These behaviours can develop into addiction-like tendencies.

Over the last 25 years, virtual reality (VR) has introduced new ways of treating eating disorders’ core symptoms, such as cravings, negative emotions, and body dysmorphia. VR has traditionally been associated with gaming and entertainment, but its potential in mental health care, particularly the treatment of eating disorders, is becoming a new technology that can make a change for good.

In this article, we will be exploring a guide to mindful eating, portion control, and positive mental health.

Common Thought Patterns of People with Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are more than just food choices; they include emotions, behaviours, and thoughts. Individuals suffering from these conditions frequently have erroneous self-perceptions, believing they are overweight despite evidence to the contrary or feeling fat despite attempts to lose weight. 

Emotionally, controlling feelings becomes difficult, leading to the use of food as a source of consolation during periods of despair, anger, or anxiety, or as a form of self-punishment through food restriction during times of stress. 

Control is a common element in eating disorders, with people feeling out of control in their lives and striving to restore order through restrictive eating practices.

Are Eating Disorders Dangerous?

Any eating problem poses serious health concerns, but anorexia nervosa is widely recognised as the most dangerous. Anorexia is characterised by abnormally low body weight and an excessive dread of gaining weight. 

Those affected may turn to fasting or excessive activity to lose weight, which, in extreme situations, can be fatal. Individuals suffering from anorexia are driven to engage in severe dietary restrictions and intense physical exercise due to their constant worry about gaining weight. 

This illness can cause serious health concerns such as heart disease, bone density loss, and organ damage.

Virtual Reality for Eating Disorders

In addition to traditional therapy, VR has emerged as a viable method for treating symptoms and anxiety related to eating disorders. Specifically designed VR protocols for eating disorders can dynamically alter the individual’s perception in real time and serve as a cue exposure tool to diminish food cravings.

VR environments, such as Amelia by XR Health, are specifically designed to help normalise eating patterns that help patients be aware of the distortion of their body image and help individuals work on creating a more positive self-image. https://ameliavirtualcare.com/

Another environment that can help people with eating disorders practice healthier methods is using a restaurant simulation. In this environment, a person can practice eating by themselves or with others. 

Watch this short video by BBC Three about VR and Eating Disorders: Using VR to explain my fight against anorexia and bulimia.

Building Relationships with Food:

Food Scenario Simulations: VR applications can recreate a variety of food-related scenarios, allowing users to interact with different foods in a controlled setting. This helps people overcome their fears, challenge distorted beliefs, and develop a healthier relationship with food.

Healthy Decision-Making Practice: VR environments can facilitate scenarios such as making healthy choices at a virtual restaurant or navigating a buffet, giving users a safe environment to practice making nutritious decisions. This can translate into increased confidence when dealing with similar situations in real life.

Portion Size Awareness: VR allows users to explore and understand portion sizes in a variety of contexts, promoting a realistic understanding of healthy eating practices. This can help to cultivate a mindful approach to portion control and balanced nutrition. This could be useful by creating a virtual menu, allowing users to visualise their portions better than they would from a paper image. 

The study Eliciting real cravings with virtual food: Using immersive technologies to explore the effects of food stimuli in virtual reality was done using virtual chocolate cookies and real chocolate cookies. The experiment was done to test whether the effects of VR cue exposure have comparable effects to real life. The advantage of adopting VR is that it has fewer limitations in use and has a greater possibility for simultaneously transmitting food-related contextual cues than food photos or real food. The study’s findings demonstrate that an increase in the formation of food cravings is a good sign that we can have similar eating experiences in VR to those in the real world.

Empowering Recovery:

Virtual Support Groups in VR: Using VR for support groups creates an empowering and inclusive environment for people on the road to recovery. These virtual communities provide shared experiences promoting understanding, compassion, and mutual support, thereby improving the recovery journey.

Interactive Goal Setting: VR applications can include goal-setting features that allow users to set personalised milestones along their recovery journey. The interactive nature of VR boosts motivation and gives people a tangible way to track their progress.

For example, a user could set a goal of practising mindful eating practices in a virtual restaurant setting, gradually testing and overcoming phobias related to specific foods. The VR platform, which includes immersive visuals and haptic feedback, allows users to monitor their progress in real-time as they successfully navigate various scenarios.

As users reach each milestone, virtual milestones and badges may be earned, providing a concrete and visually rewarding reflection of their efforts. VR’s interactive aspect not only increases motivation but also gives a dynamic and interesting opportunity for people to actively participate in their rehabilitation process.

Skill-Building Exercises

VR provides a platform for immersive skill-building exercises, allowing people to develop coping mechanisms, resilience, and self-assurance in a simulated environment before applying them in real-world situations.

Consider a scenario in which a user, directed by VR applications, meets simulated stresses that elicit emotions linked with an eating issue. VR’s interactive nature allows people to actively practise and perfect coping mechanisms like mindfulness, emotional regulation, and self-soothing exercises, all while remaining secure in the virtual world.

As users complete these skill-building exercises, they receive quick feedback and advice, strengthening their ability to negotiate difficult situations. The simulated environment serves as a bridge between theoretical knowledge gained in therapy and real-world application. 

Virtual Mindful Eating Practices

VR experiences can help users practise mindful eating by encouraging them to have a more mindful and intentional approach to eating.

VR promotes mindfulness by pushing users to pay attention to their hunger cues, creating a thorough awareness of their body’s signals. This interactive experience urges people to abandon thoughtless eating habits and adopt a more mindful approach to nutrition.

Users emerge from these experiences with a heightened awareness of their relationship with food.

Culinary Exploration

VR can offer culinary exploration experiences, allowing users to virtually interact with a variety of cuisines and ingredients. This encourages curiosity and openness to a variety of foods, resulting in a more adventurous and mindful approach to eating.

VR also allows users to practice eating in different environments to evoke different distinct sensory experiences. For example, dining in a virtual restaurant might encourage users to practice healthy decision-making, while a virtual picnic could promote a relaxed and enjoyable approach to meals. 

Mindful Cooking Simulations

VR applications can simulate cooking scenarios, guiding users through the process of creating balanced and nutritious meals. This immersive experience fosters a stronger connection to the food preparation process, encouraging cooking and helping with obstacles associated with it.

Mind-Body Connection with Meditation Apps:

Guided Meditation Journeys: Meditation apps, which are frequently compatible with VR, provide guided journeys that emphasise the mind-body connection. Users can participate in immersive meditation sessions, which promote relaxation, stress reduction, and increased awareness of the body’s signals.

Breath Awareness Exercises: VR meditation apps can include breath awareness exercises, which teach users to connect with their breath as a way to ground themselves in the present moment. This practice promotes overall mindfulness and self-awareness.

Visualisations for Body Positivity: Meditation apps can use VR to provide visualisations that promote body positivity. Users can participate in immersive experiences that promote a positive perception of their bodies, resulting in a stronger mind-body connection.

Some apps that can help:

Tripp allows you to escape to stunning landscapes and virtual worlds to be fully immersed in meditation. 

Innerworld can help those struggling with agoraphobia, anxiety, postpartum depression, PTSD and other challenges. It is a supportive community that helps people reach their goals.

Maloka brings a rewarding side to being consistent with your meditation habits. You watch your very own private island grow and evolve alongside you, as you become a healthier and more mindful person. 

Individuals can build a positive relationship with food, empower their recovery, practise mindful eating, and nurture the mind-body connection by incorporating these points into VR and meditation applications.

spiritvr

We appreciate you taking the time to explore the potential of Virtual Reality (VR) technology in addiction recovery with us. Before you conclude your reading, we want to emphasise the importance of mental health awareness.

If any part of this article has stirred emotions or raised concerns related to substance addiction, mental health, or eating disorders, please remember that it’s okay to seek support. Reach out to professionals, friends, or family members who can assist.

Read about how Virtual Reality (VR) can help with mental-wellbeing.