Background: Worldwide, there has been a marked increase in stress and anxiety, also among patients with traumatic brain injury (TBI). Access to psychology services is limited, with some estimates suggesting that over 50% of sufferers are not accessing the existing services available to them for reasons such as inconvenience, embarrassment, or stigmatization concerns around mental health. Health service providers have increasingly been turning to drug-free therapies, such as mindfulness programs, as complementary treatments.
Objective: Virtual reality (VR) as a new delivery method for meditation-based stress and anxiety reduction therapy offers configurable environments and privacy protection. Our objective was to design a serious learning-meditation environment and to test the feasibility of the developed telemindfulness approach based on cloud technologies.
Methods: We developed a cloud-based system, which consisted of a Web interface for the mindfulness instructor and remote clients, who had 3D VR headsets. The mindfulness instructor could communicate over the Web interface with the participants using the headset. Additionally, the Web app enabled group sessions in virtual rooms, 360-degree videos, and real interactions or standalone meditation. The mindfulness program was designed as an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course specifically for the developed virtual environments. The program was tested with four employees and four patients with TBI. The effects were measured with psychometric tests, the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS) and the Satisfaction With Life Scale (SWLS). Patients also carried out the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE). An additional objective evaluation has also been carried out by tracking head motion. Additionally, the power spectrum analyses of similar tasks between sessions were tested.
Results: The patients achieved a higher level of life satisfaction during the study (SWLS: mean 23.0, SD 1.8 vs mean 18.3, SD 3.9) and a slight increase of the MAAS score (mean 3.4, SD 0.6 vs mean 3.3, SD 0.4). Particular insight into the MAAS items revealed that one patient had a lower MAAS score (mean 2.3). Employees showed high MAAS scores (mean 4.3, SD 0.7) and although their SWLS dropped to mean 26, their SWLS was still high (mean 27.3, SD 2.8). The power spectrum showed that the employees had a considerable reduction in high-frequency movements less than 0.34 Hz, particularly with the 360-degree video. As expected, the patients demonstrated a gradual decrease of high-frequency movements while sitting during the mindfulness practices in the virtual environment.
Conclusions: With such a small sample size, it is too early to make any specific conclusions, but the presented results may accelerate the use of innovative technologies and challenge new ideas in research and development in the field of mindfulness/telemindfulness.
Attention impairment has often been considered a hallmark of mental illness. Attention training is an important part of meditation, and has proven to augment the ability to sustain attention [
]. Mindfulness as a meditation tool has an important role in psychology, self-awareness, and well-being. The authors Brown and Ryan [ ] reported that mindfulness over time was related to a reduction in variable mood and stress in patients with cancer. Mindfulness is an internationally recognized therapy that teaches self-awareness, maintaining own thoughts, sensations, feelings, emotions, and appreciation of your living environment [ ]. The mindfulness meditation technique may help patients manage potentially negative outcomes and improve well-being by controlling unselfconsciousness (thoughts on failure). Avoiding problems associated with the future, focusing on the present, being “now,” and controlling the tracking of time may, in addition to well-being, lead to mindfulness. A person who can achieve such an active and open attention state can control thoughts from a distance, free to judge whether they are good or not [ ]. In this context, mindfulness can also be considered an important tool for managing anxiety and stress in patients [ ]. Kabat-Zinn [ ] designed an 8-week meditation course, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, which provides 2 hours of meditation in a group with additional homework. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction has demonstrated that awareness of the mind, unconscious thoughts, feelings, and other emotions positively affect major physiological processes and thus decreases the level of stress-related disorders [ – ].
Anxiety and stress disorders can be related to pressure at work, incurable diseases, or neuromuscular disorders, such as Parkinson disease, light traumatic brain injury (TBI), multiple sclerosis, or other diseases of the muscular or central nervous system. Deficits in executive functions, memory, and learning are often documented after TBI. In addition, at least half of those suffering from TBI experience chronic pain and/or sleep disorders, depression, and substance abuse [
A review of the literature shows that neural systems are modifiable networks and changes in the neural structure can occur in adults as a result of training [
]. The study reported on anatomical magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) images from 16 healthy meditation-naïve participants who underwent the 8-week mindfulness program [ ]. The results obtained before and after the program suggested that participation in a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course was associated with changes in gray matter concentration in the regions of the brain involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.
Early rehabilitation in the acute and subacute phase may be a critical period and a key to effective rehabilitation, especially in TBI [
]. A significant drawback is that patients often stay in hospital for a limited time and are soon discharged for recovery at home. Afterward they can visit an outpatients’ clinic. Patients residing close may find the outpatient service convenient, but it could be very inconvenient for those who are in need of ongoing care, are dependent on public transport, or in the worst case do not have access to transport at all. Consequently, external factors such as travel fatigue may hinder the effectiveness of the therapy and, in some, may even increase anxiety and stress. In addition, modern diseases caused by stress and anxiety in the workplace are on the increase, but access to treatment and therapy is usually not possible during working hours [ ].
Innovative technologies can ensure real-time communication and data recording/sharing over long distances, even within larger groups of participants [
]. Nowadays, privacy, data security, shyness, and pride are among the most frequent reasons to avoid therapy if a mental disease or neuromuscular disorder is related to work or social status [ ].
Some patients prefer to remain anonymous and do not want to reveal their problems, even to colleagues. The sense of “total immersion” created by virtual reality (VR) is an emerging technology that may entirely replace mainstream videoconferencing techniques [
]. These technologies may fulfill patient expectations [ ] regarding anonymity and enhance presence [ ]. Patients can hide their identify using an avatar and their voices can be disguised. Psychologists and other experts may observe the kinematic changes in motion patterns, gestures, face mimics, and other measurable features [ ]. If there is a group, the VR avatars can be synchronized and controlled in real time, using cloud-based technologies. The operator can form groups, deliver individual or group tasks, or lead a private conversation with selected participants. We have developed a technology that is available for home and workplace use, called Realizing Collaborative Virtual Reality for Well-being and Self-Healing (ReCoVR), for which the VR headset is coupled with a mobile phone. The only requirement is a connection to Wi-Fi/4G Internet, plus communication with the cloud server allows remote interaction with other users residing thousands of miles away.
This cloud-based app is used for interaction and communication between a mindfulness expert and participants. Each participant uses a commercially available mobile phone and a simple head-mounted VR headset to join the mindfulness session in the virtual environment (VE). Our main objectives were to design a suitable mindfulness protocol based on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, with tasks in the VE with 360-degree videos, and to test the feasibility of the developed mindfulness/telemindfulness app in a real environment. Additionally, we analyzed head movements during mindfulness sessions to stimulate further initiatives in this research space. […]
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Figure 1. The ReCoVR system consists of a cloud server, serving information for the WebGL scenery and synchronization of the data (audio, video, data) between the server and clients. The clients connect to the server as mindfulness experts (using a computer with Web browser) and as mindfulness therapy participants (using Samsung GearVR 3D headset with Wi-Fi/LTE).
Figure 2. The mindfulness instructor uses the Web interface to manage the group therapy in the virtual room. The Web interface enables video-audio communication with the participants (below left), making subgroups, and assigning tasks (right) for mindfulness sessions. Additionally, the therapist can share documents and lead the session, while everybody can send/receive messages and talk to other group members.