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This blog was written in collaboration with Nickolai Joergensen

It’s no secret, the pandemic has increased stress for most of us. Our lives have been upended. Social contact decreased dramatically, while fears and worries grew. Work hours became longer, and home responsibilities compounded. This increased stress caused many to re-evaluate their priorities: 41% of the global workforce are considering quitting their job, a phenomenon aptly named “The Great Resignation”.

Companies are now grappling with building more effective, far-reaching mental health and well-being practices at work. This is becoming an urgent, foundational issue. Some are turning to technology as a potential solution, such as extended reality (XR), with the use of physical devices to digitally augment what we see, hear and feel – think of a Virtual Reality (VR) headset, which many use for a more immersive gaming experience. Up until now, XR has mostly been applied in the workplace for training and development. More recently, XR is being considered for mental health, wellbeing and personal development.

For example, HorizonMind offers VR experiences that use cognitive behavioral therapy exercises to identify blocking thoughts and feelings, remove them, and replace them with positive ones.

Nickolai Joergensen, CEO and co-founder of HorizonMind, offers a perspective on the potential of XR at work.

Nickolai, how is XR being used today in terms of mental health and wellbeing?

“We see XR entering a third wave of use cases in the workplace. The first wave was manual training environment simulations, the second wave brought interactive workrooms to boost collaboration. The third wave is well-being practices to support people through this challenging time and beyond.

The landscape for XR well-being and mental health is in its infancy but booming - much like the smartphone app landscape was back in 2010. We see VR well-being apps fall into four categories. First, exposure therapy apps where you overcome specific phobias, like fear of heights, by exposing yourself to them gradually. Second, physical and cognitive rehabilitation training to overcome chronic body pain. Third, relaxation and meditation experiences. The fourth category is focused on personal development practices, which we are pioneering at HorizonMind.”

How does it work?

“These are 10-20 minutes facilitated VR experiences, where you enter a virtual space and are met by a friendly orb that guides you through an exercise. The orb gives you visual, audio, and movement guidance to unblock yourself from negative feelings and thoughts, replacing them with empowering ones. This supports you towards any outcome of your choice, professional or personal. You don’t have to know how to meditate to use HorizonMind. You simply pick a specific problem and work through it in the VR experience. You can be completely private about what you are working on – the orb is virtual and self-directed. There are also human-assisted versions of the experiences, for those who prefer it.”

The big question is, is it effective?

“I’m a skeptic at heart myself, so we had to build our first VR experience and test it. However, my skepticism evaporated when we began to see a positive trend. People repeatedly reported having positive experiences with novel and meaningful insights that changed how they viewed themselves and their personal problems. They also reported that their sessions empowered them to take action towards a desired outcome. Our alpha cohort experienced an average increase of 54% in emotional well-being pertaining to their problem. The beta cohort jumped to an average of 95%. Because of these early successful trials, we now have executives from some of the world's largest technology companies going through our Pathway program, a six-weeks intensive program. We are in conversation with executives from other companies as well.” 

Numbers tell part of the benefits. The other parts are the real world outcomes that people experience. Can you tell us more about these?

“For example, a director at a tech company shared his remarkable  story. He had a very important meeting coming up that was critical for his career. This created a lot of stress and anxiety, which impaired him so much that he began to experience brain fog and had trouble sleeping. To try to work through his anxiety, he turned to the HorizonMind VR experience. Following his experience, he shared with us: 

‘I went from viewing this meeting as a threatening, unavoidable hindrance, to viewing it wholeheartedly as an opportunity and a gift...It immediately made the meeting non-stressful and the lasting conditions of that meeting, now over a month later, do not cause me any stress despite the fact that I live with [it] every day. I attribute this lasting peace to that one brief [VR experience].

I’m so proud and happy to report he’s still at the same company and doing great.”

In The End: The Gift to Steer Your Mind and Life

"Unfortunately, no one can be told what HorizonMind is. You have to see it for yourself." Paraphrasing this famous quote from the movie “The Matrix”, I tried one of the experiences. I went through HorizonMind’s self-guided VR experience called “The Gift''. This helps you identify a blocking thought or feeling; feel it in your body; then pull it out from your body and transform it. At the end, you replace it with a positive image. The exercise was very powerful for me. I went through different emotions: relaxation, fear, relief, and finally joy. That evening, I was dancing around the house while doing my chores. I was breathing a little easier. Even now, after more than a week, the memory of my positive image keeps me calm when stress rears its ugly head. 

Is this going to solve all my deepest issues? I don’t know yet. But for now, it has helped me handle life's curveballs with hope, helping me find more moments of joy. I am also considering going through the intensive six-weeks program, dedicating more time to my own well-being. 

As Nickolai put it:

“We can all agree that when we feel excellent, we do excellent. And VR provides an accessible, scalable platform to take care of your mental and emotional health. It’s like being handed the steering wheel to your mind and life - so you can feel, do and be what you want.