Palliative care is a medical caregiving approach aimed at giving people with serious and often terminal illnesses their best quality of life while minimizing their suffering.

One of the goals of palliative care is to reduce stress and anxiety among this population and help them find moments of relaxation. Virtual Reality Relaxation Therapy (VRT) is a relatively new way to do this. A new study finds that it outperforms traditional relaxation therapies.

Most studies on relaxation in the field of palliative care have largely ignored the potential for the immersive power of virtual reality (VR) to increase relaxation and ease pain, stress, and anxiety.

While both VRT and relaxation techniques were effective, VRT produced significantly greater reductions in both physical and emotional stress.

Besides medications, methods to promote relaxation have included massage, hypnotherapy and teaching breathing techniques. What sets VR relaxation therapy apart from these methods is that the experience it creates helps patients feel they are present in a different environment.

The research on the custom-designed VR-based relaxation program was conducted through the University of Hong Kong between November 2022 and September 2023. It involved 128 participants with a mean age of 67 years, who were recruited from palliative care units. Seventy-percent of the subjects were female and around 93 percent of the participants completed the study.

Half of the participants received VRT that involved experiencing videos of nature scenes and sounds, while the other half received traditional in-person relaxation therapy in the form of coaching in diaphragmatic breathing. The research showed that while both VRT and relaxation techniques were effective, VRT produced significantly greater reductions in both physical and emotional stress.

VRT not only removes patients from their physical surroundings, the researchers point out, it also helps to isolate them from their current condition, thereby lowering their anxiety. VR environments can also be designed to offer meditation and a sense of calm.

“Here we show that relaxation assisted by virtual reality (VR) outperforms traditional relaxation therapy in terms of physical and psychological symptom management in palliative care,” lead author of the study, Olive Woo, a doctoral student at the Department of Psychology of the University of Hong Kong and a registered clinical psychologist and certificated thanatologist, said in a press release.

These findings do not stand alone. Previous research shows VR combined with exercise can help seniors suffering with chronic pain.

“We believe that the VR experience activates psychological mechanisms that promote self-determination, flow experience and restoration, ultimately improving the psychological and emotional well-being of patients in palliative care more than does relaxation therapy alone,” said health psychologist Antoinette Lee, the co-author of the study and Woo's academic supervisor.

The Center to Advance Palliative Care estimates that around six million people in our country can benefit from palliative care. More studies are needed to follow up on the effects of VRT over time, but this is a promising technique that appears to ease anxiety and increase the general well-being in people living with the stressors of palliative care.

The study is published in Frontiers in Virtual Realty. You can view one of the immersive videos used in the study here.