Frontline Nurses Derive Emotional Relief Through Virtual Reality Technology

March 27, 2021 Updated: March 28, 2021

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif.—For frontline medical professionals such as Crystal Watson, a registered nurse working at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian, the ongoing pandemic has taken a significant emotional and physical toll.

The long hours of caring for patients, the relentlessness of the disease itself, as well as having to communicate with family members unable to visit their loved ones, can be overwhelming—sometimes debilitating, she said.

“When COVID first struck, I wasn’t worried. I knew I was working for the best hospital in Orange County, and I felt extremely confident about my skills and rounded approach in caring for my patients,” Watson told the Epoch Times.

“But we really didn’t know what was to unfold or understand how devastating this disease could be. It was a combination of what I call ‘competency and chaos.’ It was confusing, frustrating … exhausting.”

Turning to Technology

Recognizing that nurses and other health care professionals were in need of relief, Hoag introduced a way to support its employees through CenteredVR, a virtual reality-based mindfulness and stress management program.

Hoag is among the first health care facilities in the nation to deploy virtual reality therapies.

“Prioritizing our team’s mental health and well-being is always something top-of-mind, especially after the challenging year we faced with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Rick Martin, Hoag’s chief nursing officer of Hoag, said in a press release.

“When we introduced the CenteredVR program, nearly two-thirds of our nursing staff in the COVID-19 unit signed up to participate and we’ve continued to receive positive feedback on the program’s impact in their day-to-day lives.”

The CenteredVR pilot is intended to give nurses in Hoag’s COVID-19 unit an opportunity to mitigate the chronic stress as well as build resilience and enhance individual coping skills.

Early results on the technology indicate that it’s helped mitigate stress levels.

Among those who have used the program to date, stress levels decreased, on average, by a reported 34 percent.

A Successful Experiment

Watson said she was “iffy” about virtual reality at first.

“We’ve always had other ways of dealing with stress, but none that had a visual element, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.”

Epoch Times Photo
Crystal Watson is among many registered nurses at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian who use virtual technology to decompress from the stresses of the job. (Courtesy of Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian)

But from the minute her virtual goggles arrived in a CenteredVR trial box, Watson said it was all about a personal experience of relaxation.

“When the box it came, it was designed so beautifully … flowery, it was even scented, giving almost a spa-like feeling,” she said.

Once she put on the goggles and plugged in her earphones, she said she was transported to another world, floating high above the ocean like a bird. As she began to use her CenteredVR regularly, her stress-induced headaches began to melt away.

Watson was able to choose which session she wanted to experience based on either the level of stress she was feeling, from on-demand options meant to target specific feelings of anxiousness, sadness, or hopelessness.

“I fell in love with the ‘Body Scan’ series—one minute I was on my couch stressing, the next minute I was watching a beautiful waterfall or meandering through a lush green forest,” she said.

Once she began to focus on the breathing exercises, she said the tension in her neck and shoulders began to relax.

“I didn’t realize how much tension I was caring in that part of my body until I began using the system,” she said.

While some of the nurses used the technology to decompress, Watson said she would put her goggles on before work to prepare her for the day ahead, and that it helped her to feel more in control and able to handle the stressors of a 12-hour shift.

“Stress and burnout among health care workers is not a new phenomenon, but the unrelenting pace and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic has taken these common challenges to new, unimaginable heights, bringing sustained, intense levels of stress,” Aaron Gani, chief executive of technology-maker BehaVR, said in a press release.

Developed in collaboration with Johns Hopkins Medicine, the CenteredVR program has six 20-minute sessions that gradually guide individuals through a soothing, immersive virtual reality experience.

The sessions can be done in the safety and comfort of their own homes, and are designed to alleviate stress through educational elements as well as mindfulness practices that have been shown to optimize stress responses, thereby becoming less reactive and more resilient to stressors.

“We have seen the power of virtual reality-enabled programming to support the mental health and well-being of our patients, so it was a natural fit for us to offer a tool like CenteredVR to our nurses,” Dr. Robert Louis, Hoag’s chief of neurosurgery, said in a press release.

“We are hopeful that CenteredVR can bring these benefits to our nation’s tireless and dedicated health care workers.”