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Build a Better Sleep with VR?

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Your sleeping environment, lack of screen time right before bed, and routines can make or break a good night’s sleep.  While we’ve been busy focusing on making our surroundings as hospitable for relaxation and sleep as possible, scientists have been wondering if using immersive virtual reality can transform our sleeping environment for the better.

               The Sleep Research Society published a study earlier this summer which explored how virtual reality environments could benefit people’s state of mind right before sleep.  They were particularly interested in how adolescents and teens would react because of the physiological changes that occur during the teen years which sometimes makes sleeping difficult.  Increased pressures face teens as they deal with academic, social, and hormonal changes in the years that precede having to take full responsibility for themselves.

               The researchers recruited 29 teens aged 16-18 years old, some of whom were already having difficulty with sleep.  They compared how well traditional methods for relaxation before sleep stacked up against intentional slow breathing while experiencing a calming relaxation environment through a VR headset.  The participants who were engaged in quiet activities did not alter their breathing and instead read a book silently before bed.  The groups tried both tactics on alternating nights in the 2-night study.

               All participants were monitored via polysomnography.  Polysomnography is the same technology used in sleep studies which measured their brain waves through electrodes, and sensors placed on an elastic belt to fit around the ribcage measured breathing patterns.

               The group of teens using the VR were told to take slow deep breaths through the diaphragm.
This group experienced a marked decrease in worry and greater feelings of relaxation.  Their heart rates decreased by five beats per minute, but the group who practiced quiet reading did not have a drop in their heart rates. 

               In addition to a slower heart rate and feeling more relaxed, the group using the VR fell asleep 6 minutes faster than the other group, and their sleep efficiency increased by 3% compared to the night when VR wasn’t used.

               The VR positively impacted teens that were having insomnia as well as those who were already sleeping well, demonstrating a positive and accessible activity that can benefit all types of sleepers.

               While the study didn’t attempt to make the slow, diaphragmatic breathing a focal point of the study, it would have been interesting to know how a VR experience versus intentional slow breathing +without a VR would have worked.  Slow, diaphragmatic breathing is a well-known tool to relax the body because it causes physiological downregulation.

               Even still, these new insights might be making their way into your sleep routine soon—transporting you to an entirely different place and a calmer state of mind.

References

D Yüksel, A Goldstone, D Prouty, et al. The Use of Immersive Virtual Reality and Slow Breathing to Enhance Relaxation and Sleep in AdolescentsSleep, Volume 43, Issue Supplement_1, April 2020, Page A348, https://doi.org/10.1093/sleep/zsaa056.912

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