Everyone knows how it feels to go on vacation. Not only do you get a chance to decompress and unwind while you’re there, the effects tend to last once you’ve returned. Now, there is evidence that traveling to a relaxing destination via virtual reality could provide many of the same emotional benefits as taking an actual trip.

Relaxing virtual reality environments are being used in a variety of ways to quell anxiety. One dental office in Devon, England, allows patients to visit a South Devon beach via virtual reality while they undergo dental care. Right from the dentist chair they are able to stroll along a white sandy beach and feel the ocean crash just feet away from them, all while they receive the treatment needed to maintain good dental health.

VR Offers “Mind Over Matter” Benefits during Dental Treatments

Medical research confirms what many people already know – there are benefits to mind over matter and virtual reality makes it easier to control your mind when dealing with a less-than-pleasant matter.

According to a study published in the journal Environment & Behaviour, a team of researchers from the Universities of Plymouth, Exeter and Birmingham worked with the Torrington Dental Practice in Devon to determine if VR experiences could make routine dental work easier for patients. Patients agreed to take part in the study on a random basis and were given either standard care, a virtual walk along the beach using a headset and hand controller, or a walk around an anonymous city.

What researchers found was that the patients who spent time on the beach were less anxious and experienced reduced pain during their procedure, and had a more positive recall a week after their dental treatment. These same benefits were not present for those who received standard care or those who simply explored the city via VR.

According to Dr. Karin Tanja-Dijkstra, lead author of the study, “The use of virtual reality in health care settings is on the rise but we need more rigorous evidence of whether it actually improves patient experiences. Our research demonstrates that under the right conditions, this technology can be used to help both patients and practitioners.”

VR Environments Have a Major Impact on Stress

Authors of the study want doctors and others using virtual reality tools to understand that the environment a patient visits is important. They also want people to know that less-than-ideal VR environments could produce the opposite effect. For instance, it might seem fun for someone to have a high-speed car chase via virtual reality to escape from the reality of dental care, but something intense and exciting could make the experience more stressful.

Some of the researchers involved in the study believe the beach environment is especially beneficial when trying to relax via virtual reality. According to the dental study’s co-author, Dr. Mathew White from the University of Exeter, “We have done a lot of work recently which suggests that people are happiest and most relaxed when they are at the seaside. So it seemed only natural to investigate whether we could “bottle” this experience and use it to help people in potentially stressful healthcare contexts.”

Here’s what users see in the experience.

The project’s coordinator, Dr. Sabine Pahl from the University of Plymouth explained, “merely distracting patients isn’t enough, [the environment] needs to be welcoming and relaxing.” Dr. Pahl thinks it would be interesting to see how the beach environment approach works for people who are not easily able to access nature because of their circumstances at work or in other medical situations.

Researchers from the University of Plymouth hope to learn more about how VR can improve health outcomes for patients. According to Professor David Moles, “This research is one of a number of initiatives we at Plymouth University Peninsula School of Dentistry have been working on alongside the fabulous team at Torrington Dental Practice and it clearly demonstrates the benefits that can be achieved when academics work in partnership with clinicians in order to address problems that really matter to patients.”

This research team hopes to next look at whether the virtual beach can help patients undergoing other medical procedures and whether enhancing the environment could improve the experience even more. The possibilities here only serve to further prove that the immersion that comes from VR can help unlock the potential of the mind to overcome the stresses put on the body, which will be a huge factor to getting more out of our bodies when experiencing VR in fitness or gaming.