The Science behind the Protocol

Most of us will probably never go to the Moon, climb Mount Everest, or swim with dolphins. Virtual reality (VR), however, can allow us to do all these things using the simulative power of computers and smartphones.

Specifically, what distinguishes VR from other media is the sense of presence: the feeling of “being there” inside the virtual experience produced by the technology. The feeling of presence, associated with the high level of emotional engagement allowed by virtual experiences, turns this technology into a powerful tool for exploring what is possible and engaging with it, supporting personal and clinical change.

More, as discussed recently by the Washington Post, different studies demonstrated that digital experiences of the natural world can impact health and well-being.

The Problem: The psychological Burden of Coronavirus

As we have seen, Coronavirus forces us to face three different psychological dilemmas - the stress of the disease, the disappearance of places, and the crisis of the sense of community - that put a strain on our identity and our relationships.

The Opportunity: Using the Coronavirus to Change

One of the paradoxes of coronavirus is that despite being a problem, it can also be a unique opportunity. In fact, willingly or unwillingly, it forces us to change and manage new situations such as quarantine, close coexistence with children and spouse, lack of relationships, and so on.

How to Change

First, the process of change requires self-reflectiveness: an intense focus on the particular instance or experience creating the potential problem. By focusing on this experience as much as possible, the individual can relive and identify any significant element (e.g., conceptual, behavioral, emotional, or motivational) facilitating its reorganization. Unfortunately the disappearance of places produced by the quarantine, is reducing self-reflectiveness because we don't have a space - even in our home - where we can reflect freely.

Second, the process of change requires personal efficacy. Individuals have to believe that they have the power to effect changes through their actions. Without it, they are not willing to act or to keep on acting in the face of problems and difficulties. Unfortunately, the fear of Coronavirus and the limited efforts we can do to counter it are reducing our personal efficacy, too.

Third, the process of change is facilitated by the support of other individuals: other persons can complement our own skills and provide a practical support that facilitates the process of change. Unfortunately, the quarantine limits drastically the possibility of any form of social support.

Finally, the process of change can be dramatically boosted by transformative experiences, forcing individuals to critically examine and eventually revise their core assumptions and beliefs. Unfortunately, most transformative experiences cannot be planned in advance, but happen suddenly in individuals’ lives, without prior planning and control of its content and effect.

The goal of the protocol

This protocol uses the power of virtual reality to provide a transformative experience that can help you in two ways:

  • By providing a digital place in which you can relax and reflect;

  • By facilitating a process of critical examination and eventually revision of your core assumptions, beliefs and world view.

In particular we used the rules defined for an effective design of Transformative Experiences, to develop the "Secret Garden" VR experience and its weekly protocol.

Our Tool: The "surgical mask" of mental health support

Surgical Masks does NOT provide the wearer with a reliable level of protection against coronavirus (20%) versus the 95/99% of FFP2 and FFP3 masks.

However, they are very effective in protecting others from the wearer’s respiratory emissions, and their use is significantly better than wearing a scarf.

Here, we try to do the same. The goal of this VR protocol is not to solve complex mental health problems, but rather to reduce the burden of the quarantine by relieving anxiety and stress and improving interpersonal relationships.

Additionally, by facilitating self-reflectiveness and constructive exchange with relevant others, it improves our ability to adapt to the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities offered by the Coronavirus.

Key Scientific References

What is the goal of the protocol and how we designed it:

"How Cyberpsychology and Virtual Reality Can Help Us to Overcome the Psychological Burden of Coronavirus"

CyberPsychology, Behavior and Social Networking scientific journal, May 2020

"Positive Technology and COVID-19"

CyberPsychology, Behavior and Social Networking scientific journal, September 2020

"Neuroscience of Virtual Reality: From Virtual Exposure to Embodied Medicine"

CyberPsychology, Behavior and Social Networking scientific journal, January 2019

"Transforming Experience: The Potential of Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality for Enhancing Personal and Clinical Change"

Frontiers in Psychiatry scientific journal, September 2016

"Transformative Experience Design"

In the book "Human Computer Confluence", August 2015

"The Past, Present, and Future of Virtual and Augmented Reality Research: A Network and Cluster Analysis of the Literature"

Frontiers in Psychology, November 2018

What is Positive Technology:

"Positive Technology Supports Shift to Preventive, Integrative Health"

CyberPsychology, Behavior and Social Networking scientific journal, February 2012

"A Brief Review of Positive Technology in Europe and the USA"

Studies in Health Technology and Informatics, September 2012

"Ensuring the Best Care for Our Increasing Aging Population: Health Engagement and Positive Technology Can Help Patients Achieve a More Active Role in Future Healthcare"

Cybertherapy and Rehabilitation scientific journal, June 2012

"Positive Technology Improves Health and Well Being"

Cybertherapy and Rehabilitation scientific journal, June 2012

How Social Media can help you:

"Using Social Media to Our Advantage: Alleviating Anxiety During a Pandemic"

CyberPsychology, Behavior and Social Networking scientific journal, May 2020

"Social Media Use During Social Distancing"

CyberPsychology, Behavior and Social Networking scientific journal, April 2020

The psychological effects of Coronavirus:

"Mental Health and the Covid-19 Pandemic"

New England Journal of Medicine scientific journal, April 2020

"Effects of Social Grooming on Incivility in COVID-19"

CyberPsychology, Behavior and Social Networking scientific journal, April 2020

"Multidisciplinary research priorities for the COVID-19 pandemic: a call for action for mental health science"

The Lancet Psychiatry scientific journal, May 2020

"Psychological interventions for people affected by the COVID-19 epidemic"

The Lancet Psychiatry scientific journal, February 2020

"Online mental health services in China during the COVID-19 outbreak"

The Lancet Psychiatry scientific journal, February 2020