It’s often easier to solve other's problems than our own because we can distance ourselves. When we are not in the midst of something, we are more inclined to see it objectively.
Virtual reality is one tool for distancing where people create a realistic image of themselves, matching appearance and movement. By virtually “body-swapping”, they can view their virtual selves from a distance. And when there is distance from a problem, people detach from it emotionally and gain a different perspective.
This scenario was created in a new study in Nature where patients were in a room with a virtual Sigmund Freud while their virtual selves, or avatars, explaining their problems to him. Some participants would then swap into Freud’s character to dispense advice to their avatars. Those who were in Freud’s character felt they had an even better understanding of their problem than those who only played the patient role.
This idea of virtual reality to address problems has interesting implications for the future of mental health practice but there may be some concerns if patients practice distancing in self-counseling.
Anastasia Yaskevich, Enterprise Mobility Researcher at ScienceSoft notes that “VR takes a very common concept of 'internal monologue' to another level. Instead of struggling to see a troubling issue from an outsider's perspective while remaining confined inside their own heads, patients can use virtual body swapping to almost physically distance themselves from their problems. As VR places a patient in the virtual counselor's body, it enables a real dialogue of one person in two bodies, which helps patients to understand their issues better and arrive at new conclusions.”
Meredith Thompson, with MIT, seespractical issues with this approach. “Virtual reality equipment is still expensive,” notes Thompson “and not everyone has access to equipment. Users can get a VR headset that can use their phone but those tend to be less interactive and less immersive experiences. The more moderately priced hardware does not have the same immersive effect as the more expensive hardware.”
However, when it is accessible, it is “known for sparking empathy for others,'' said Thompson. “This could be a way of developing empathy for your own problems, and seeing problems from a new perspective.” People who are self-aware could get to the core of their issues quicker. Adina Mahalli, MSW notes that “Some people in therapy or counseling find it difficult to relate to a therapist which can hinder the process. With self-counseling, you know yourself well enough that those barriers don’t exist and therefore you’re able to get to the root of your issues quicker by cutting out the middleman that is your therapist.”
Since the way people speak to themselves can affect the ability to cope with situations, Mahalli believes there is a place for self-counseling. She said, “the ability to give yourself advice in the second person can help you to come up with effective and personalized coping mechanisms and tools for better understanding of the self.”
Experts do see value in this approach - with supervision. Yaskevich notes "a mental health specialist still needs to determine whether this method should or shouldn't be used. If a patient shows extremely high levels of distress, anger, and mental instability, self-counseling presents tangible risks of worsening the patient's condition.”
Mahalli worries that the disconnection from self-counseling separates people too much from their issues. “You can give yourself advice that in theory is good, but in reality, it is not something that you’re capable of following through with,” added Mahalli. “The disconnection has the potential to set your standards too high. Additionally, this is an effective way to help you towards introspection but in the long term, these skills should come naturally. The practice should give you skills that you can then use without needing to be in the self-counseling setup or using virtual reality to give yourself advice.”
Unfortunately, therapy is out of reach for some people, due to cost, time, and availability which is where self-counseling could be helpful. Adds Mahalli, “If you’re struggling to the point where you find it difficult to leave the house and get to appointments, self-counseling provides the convenience of at-home therapy that is on your own schedule.”