Recent developments in clinical psychology research

Posted on 5th November 2019

Posted in Psychology

Young female psychologist helping a primary school aged boy in a session.
Young female psychologist helping a primary school aged boy in a session.
Young female psychologist helping a primary school aged boy in a session.

Psychology is an ever-changing field of study. In recent years, developments in research, clinical practice and theory have changed the focus of contemporary psychology to address matters relating to positive ageing, mental health in children and the use of technology in health care.

In this blog, we turn the spotlight towards an emerging field known as positive psychology and address how psychologists are promoting healthy ageing. We will also look at claims in the popular media that there is a childhood anxiety epidemic, before discussing the development of virtual reality (VR) technology which is being used for the treatment of phobias and PTSD with promising results.

Positive ageing

While the field of positive psychology was conceptually introduced in 2003 with a focus on wellbeing, it is only now emerging as an essential branch of psychology. Traditionally, psychology emphasised identifying and treating mental illness and other problems in times of adversity.  Positive psychology shifts the focus from clinical ill-health and instead, promotes wellbeing and the importance of a fulfilling and satisfying life. Specifically, it is the study of the conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups and institutions.

One particular area in which positive psychology has had a profound impact is ageing. While many of us view older adults as being ‘past their prime’ and no longer able to contribute to society, positive psychologists approach ageing from the perspective that people can (and do) continue to live purposeful and active lives that are relatively disease-free, for extended periods of time. Positive, or ‘successful’ ageing is a new area of research which challenges the notion that older adults are generally unwell, without purpose, and disengaged from society. It identifies a set of individual characteristics that promote ageing well. The characteristics, which are also thought to enhance wellbeing in dementia patients, include: 

1.    cognitive reserve – brain plasticity through constant learning which maintains neural processes

2.    mastery – a sense of control over life and future

3.    self-efficacy – a belief in one’s value and ability to achieve

4.    wisdom – cognitive, affective and reflective experience

5.    resilience – maintaining subjective wellbeing through adversity

6.    spirituality – religiosity or search of existential meaning, and 

7.    purposeful engagement – activities that maintain social roles and are meaningful to the individual

The most effective way people can maintain a positive and healthy life is with improvements in diet and physical activity; however, psychologists can also intervene to facilitate positive ageing. For instance, programs have been designed to maintain cognitive function and remediation such as games aimed to improve processing speed. Creative exercises like play-acting can provide meaningful cognitive stimulation, and activities that include a social element such as narrative writing and problem-solving can boost engagement.  

Psychologists can promote positive ageing with gratitude, forgiveness and altruism interventions. These interventions focus on reframing maladaptive thoughts, encouraging self-kindness,  accepting environmental/natural circumstances, and providing a sense of meaning by giving back to the community. While more evidence is needed to support some of the claims surrounding positive ageing, contemporary approaches to positive psychology generally accept that people will demonstrate both strengths and weaknesses as they age.  For instance, while it may not be possible for an elderly disabled person to participate in some physical activities, a sense of giving back to the community and engagement can still be achieved by, for example, teaching their grandson how to bake a cake.

Psychologist helping an elderly person

Childhood anxiety

Childhood anxiety is an area of psychology that has received an increased level of attention in research and practice in recent years. Parents and developmental psychologists are becoming increasingly aware of children spending more time online, which can have a significant impact on a child’s ability to socialise

Anxiety is a future-oriented, and physiologically reactive, emotion triggered by thoughts of uncontrollable, or unpredictable events perceived as aversive. The hallmark of anxious behaviour is often observable actions taken to avoid feeling anxious, but in children, the symptoms can be particularly difficult to recognise. It’s important for parents to understand that if there is impairment or distress, a disorder may be present.

It’s vital to help children identify anxiety. Talk with them to help them understand what it is when it happens and what to do when it occurs. Parents should also be aware of cognitive deficits such as poor concentration or worry; behavioural concerns such as restlessness or withdrawal from once enjoyable situations; and physiological symptoms such as sleeplessness or persistent nausea. Spending time with children and teaching them breathing and muscle relaxation exercises can be really helpful. 

But is there an epidemic? The idea that children today are suffering from anxiety more than previous generations did appears to be suggested by popular media. A Google search will reveal over 700,000 entries for ‘anxiety epidemic’; with Beyond Blue statistics showing that ‘1 in 14 young Australians (6.9%) aged 4-17 experienced an anxiety disorder in 2015. This is equivalent to approximately 278,000 young people.’

The growing awareness of anxiety may have led to an over-representation of anxiety in general, while in fact, clinical level of anxiety remains stable. 

Young female psychologist helping a primary school aged boy in a session.

The use of VR in mental health care

Recent advances in technology have facilitated considerable change in the way healthcare services are delivered. Interestingly, the development of gaming technology has seen some of the most promising advancements in mental healthcare treatment. Virtual Reality (VR) is now being developed to treat social disorders, phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). VR uses simulated environments that clients can manipulate, interact with, and feel immersed in.

Used in psychotherapy, VR can evoke a virtual presence in the current moment, while simulating an active involvement with the environment. Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET) allows virtual exposure to stimuli that evokes a fear response in clients, and this has been particularly effective in treating phobias. For example, if a person is fearful of travelling on trains or being in enclosed spaces, VRET allows them to experience the scenario while incorporating basic relaxation techniques, such as breathing or muscle relaxation, to associate it with a more positive experience. 

Similarly, therapists have used VRET to treat PTSD by exposing returned servicemen and women to past experiences that continue to evoke trauma and help them to overcome the perception of threat. In the future, psychologists hope to take advantage of advanced VR technology that engages not only cognitive resources but also bodily senses (such as touch and sound), to induce mood and increase the efficacy of treatment.  

Gamers will be familiar with the use of avatars (alternate selves) to engage with a virtual environment and interact with others in a VR landscape.  Interestingly, research has shown that people infer their expected behaviours and attitudes in accordance with the appearance of their created avatars – a phenomenon known as the Proteus Effect. For example, more attractive avatars will walk closer to, and engage with others more unattractive avatars. Taller avatars will also be more assertive and dominating than shorter ones.  

Height and attractiveness were even found to correlate positively with performance in online games. Psychologists are now interested to see if the Proteus Effect could be incorporated into VRET to enhance a person’s self-image, thereby improving self-efficacy and facilitating the treatment of social anxiety and phobias.​​


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