By using virtual reality (VR), it is possible to simulate very realistic situations, which means that it is possible to measure how someone handles a stressful situation. For example, techniques to learn to deal with stress can be developed.
PhD researcher Mathijs Nijland and research assistant Bart Lestestuiver are closely involved in carrying out the research into stress resilience, which bears the name ‘Building Bounce Back’. “Physically, stress is associated with all kinds of complaints, such as cardiovascular disease. We see that people improve psychologically and physically when stress is reduced. Stress resilience is therefore important in many situations,” says Nijland.
The research with the virtual stress test focuses on the controlled generation of stress. The aim is to see whether the virtual stress test succeeds in eliciting an equally good stress response compared to the real stress test. Ultimately, the aim is to teach people techniques on how to deal with that stress.
A well-known test in psychology to induce stress is the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST). A test subject first sits in a waiting room for a while and then has a conversation with an application panel. Then there is another calculation test.
“The test subject is assessed and has to perform, which causes a lot of stress,” explains Nijland. Continuous measurements are made during the test. “The disadvantage of the test is that for the application panel you need a room for two people who always have to respond in exactly the same way. That is why we decided to build the stress test in virtual reality.”
The characters in the virtual test move and speak as realistically as possible. When the panelists are bored, they check their smartphones. When paying attention, they sit all the way forward in their seat.
The stress is measured by the researchers in two ways. “Before and after each part, the subjects fill in a questionnaire. During the filling, the amount of salivary cortisol is measured by chewing a cotton ball. This way we know how much stress hormone someone has at that moment. In addition, the heart rate is continuously measured,” explains Nijland.
The pilot has now been completed and the first results look good. In addition, an upgrade with a control variant in the form of a friendly version is in progress. “The measurements show that there is an increase in stress before and after the test. We can work with this further. And with the upgrade, we can conduct a randomized study with a control group,” says Nijland.
Ultimately, the researchers want to compare the collected data with the data that is already known from the literature. “This would enable us to demonstrate that this VR stress test is actually just as effective or perhaps even more effective than the real variant. If it turns out that it is a well-functioning stress test, you can teach someone stress-reducing techniques in advance, such as a breathing exercise. This could apply in various situations, such as in the treatment of psychiatric patients, but also in burnout recovery of employees,” says Nijland enthusiastically.
Photo: Henk Veenstra