Virtual Reality Emotion Regulation for Youth

Research Overview

In the last ten years, Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) has seen a rise in research on how features of interactive technologies can be designed to enhance emotion regulation training–a response in part due to the increase of mental health issues. Youth are a vulnerable population at risk for mental health issues with long wait times to get help. Emotion regulation, the ability to modulate the intensity and duration of emotional states, has been explored as a trans-diagnostic intervention to improve mental health. Youth aged 12-15 use less adaptive or maladaptive emotion regulation strategies (e.g., suppression) that can contribute to depression or anxiety disorders. Thus, training adaptive emotion regulation skills is crucial for this age group. One of the most effective emotion regulation strategies for youth is cognitive reappraisal–changing how we think about a situation in order to decrease its emotional impact. However, learning is difficult because it requires:

(1) generation of meaningful emotionally laden social situations;

(2) real-time feedback of internal psychological and physiological states; and

(3) practice modifying the interpretation of multiple situations.

Virtual Reality (VR) is a computer-generated 3D environment that allows the user to experience a simulated world through stereoscopic 360 visuals, stereo audio, and 3D interaction with tracking sensors. The affordances of VR have been shown to strongly affect human emotional responses and interpretations of social situations when used in other intervention contexts. As such, VR may provide unique opportunities for cognitive reappraisal skills development through three mechanisms:

Mechanism #1: virtual environment–a simulated world that evokes the visceral experience of a realistic emotional response;

Mechanism #2: interaction & feedback–possibilities to control and modify emotionally evocative aspects of the virtual environment;

Mechanism #3: taking multiple perspectives–the ability to put the user in another’s shoes.

As an example, you put on a VR headset and find yourself walking down the halls on the first day of high school; there are lots of new faces and you hope to make a good first impression (Mech #1). You hear the sound of your heart beating and your breathing getting heavier and uneven, and other kids laughing–are they laughing at you (Mech #2)? Luckily, you have a super power that allows you to embody other peoples’ perspectives (Mech #3). You take the VR controller, point it at the older kid who was laughing, and teleport into their virtual body (Mech #2). Suddenly, you can see yourself from their perspective and hear their thoughts–“look at all these new kids. I remember my first day I tripped down the stairs and broke a tooth. So embarrassing!” (Mech #3). You teleport back to your body and hear your heart rate drop to indicate that you have regulated the anxiety response (Mech #2). They weren’t laughing at you, but empathizing with your experience. Seeing and understanding this new perspective is cognitively reappraising the event. In this scenario, VR offers youth a way to practice cognitive reappraisal in a safe, meaningful, and emotionally laden environment with real-time feedback; thus meeting the reappraisal requirements (1-3) listed above, which are normally difficult to meet.

Objectives & Research Questions: There is a rise in VR’s accessibility and popularity among youth (e.g., Oculus Quest 2 VR headset does not require a computer, costs $400 CAD, and has sold over 5 million units). There is a unique opportunity to investigate the overarching research question: can the above three VR mechanisms (Mechanisms #1-3) address the three learning requirements of cognitive reappraisal skill development in youth?


Alex Kitson, Project and Design Lead

Alissa Antle, Project and Design Co-Lead

Annemiek Veldhuis, Research Assistant

Madison Gara, Visiting Research Student

John Ordoyo, Research Assistant

Artun Cimensel, Research Assistant

Amy Guo, Research Volunteer