Olfactory virtual realities show promise for mental health, integrative care
Findings from a study on the feasibility of addressing anxiety, pain, and stress with Olfactory Virtual Reality (OVR), a new form of virtual reality that incorporates the sense of smell into its augmented reality, show how clinical psychiatrists could use it to safely and effectively help mental health and mood disorders
Olfactory Virtual Reality (OVR), a new form of virtual reality that incorporates the sense of smell into its augmented reality, could be used to safely and effectively help mental health and mood disorders, as well as addressing anxiety, pain, and stress, according to a new study published in the Journal of Medical Research and Health Sciences.
Building on previous research showing VR's effectiveness, the study provides evidence that stimulating the olfactory system via scent in practitioner-administered virtual realities can trigger memory, cognition, and emotion, and may improve the therapeutic benefits of augmented realities targeting chronic pain, anxiety, and mood disorders.
For the study, researchers from the University of Vermont collaborated with OVR Technology, a Burlington, Vermont-based company that specializes in olfactory virtual reality in this context, to design a relaxing, virtual forest and campsite that could be independently, fully experienced in an area of just 100-square-feet. Using software, scentware, and hardware supplied by OVR Technology, the team created a simulation complete with a virtual tent, picnic table, fire pit, logs, and other objects to touch, and aromas of fresh bacon and toasted marshmallows.
Participants, all inpatient psychiatry patients that voluntary participated in the study, were immersed in the forest camp environment for eight to 12-minutes in weekly OVR sessions that coincided with their standard clinical treatment plans. Following the OVR sessions, participants reported significant and immediate improvements to their anxiety, stress, and pain levels that lasted up to three hours after a session.
Among the most dramatic improvements reported by participants were reduced anxiety levels, the researchers said. Participants were asked throughout the sessions to rate their anxiety levels on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the lowest and 10 the highest. Nearly half the participants (45.6 percent) rated their anxiety levels prior to OVR as either a 9 or 10. Roughly the same percent of participants (44.6 percent) rated their anxiety levels immediately after the session as either a 1 or 2. Between one to three hours later, half the participants (50 percent) rated their anxiety levels as either a 2 or 3. In all, participants' anxiety dropped a median of five levels from start to finish through the process, according to the study.
"OVR allowed patients whose circumstances excluded them from physical activity and exposure to nature to virtually experience physical activity in nature with similar sounds, sights and smells to a real-world scenario," said David Tomasi, DSc, PhD, EdD, MA, MCS, AAT, lead author of the study, in a statement. “Those similar sensations evoked memories and responses that reduced anxiety and improved mood, just as the real experience would.”
The researchers also said OVR shows promise for improved access and inclusion of patients impacted by physical limitations or constraints, such as patient mobility, comorbidities, and safety.