How is Virtual Reality Applied to Mental Health?

Researchers have been developing systems using virtual reality to assist people in overcoming phobias for over 20 years. Since then virtual reality (VR) therapy has been expanded to help with more complex anxiety disorders, such as post-traumatic stress, social anxiety and the anxiety associated with paranoid schizophrenia.


Key to any effective treatment of an anxiety disorder is to face the fear, otherwise known as exposure therapy. With the clinician providing emotional support, the patient by consistently confronting his fear gradually becomes desensitized to that particular fear.


It has been shown that confronting fears is easier in a virtual setting. A patient with a phobia about flying can take off and land many times in a single VR session while never paying for the flight. Army veterans with PTSD who can’t recall the details of a traumatic memory can reenact the event in exhaustive detail in VR enhancing the therapeutic experience.


Until recently, the complexity and cost of VR equipment were prohibitive, effectively limiting VR therapy to research labs and clinics. Now, computer-based headsets can be purchased for hundreds of dollars. And as the technology develops the price will continue to drop making virtual reality therapy available to many more patients,


It May be Virtual, but it Sure Feels Real

The effectiveness of VR therapy stems from the automatic reaction that everyone has from fear cues, even in when the environment is known to be unreal. This is because the amygdala (the brain’s fear sensor) responds to stressors in a matter of milliseconds, much quicker than the message is processed in the frontal cortex (the logic center).


Consequently, patients who experience their fears in VR have shown the same physiological reactions, increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol and a higher heart rate as those who confront their fears in the “real world.” Initially, researchers weren’t sure that a computer simulation could provoke those reactions, but clinical experience has allayed that concern.


And There is More to Come!

As one prominent psychologist exclaimed “the beauty of VR” is that you can do stuff that you can’t do in real life.” For instance, coaching a socially anxious patient through a conversation sometimes requires redirecting that person’s focus away from himself and toward his environment. In VR, the therapist can effortlessly direct the client’s attention to some aspect of the virtual world to help him dispel his self-consciousness.


Researchers in South Korea are now testing a combination of fantastical and real elements to help those with panic disorder. In the new VR program, the patient enters the panic-inducing situation, like a crowded elevator. If the patient has a panic attack, she can hit the escape button and instantly be transported to a peaceful beach. Once “moved” to that haven, the patient receives instructions to calm her breathing.


What’s the Verdict?

According to some prominent psychologists, “The real question is if VR is as good as traditional therapies, which one should we do for which patients, and why?” To date, researchers have been able to identify a couple of factors that can be used as a barometer to predict for whom virtual reality will be most beneficial.


Being younger and not taking antidepressants — seemed to indicate those who would fare better with VR. It makes sense that tech-driven treatment would resonate better with younger patients whose world is dominated by technology.


To be sure many will never consider as a viable substitute for a human therapist. They maintain that despite the effectiveness of virtual reality, mental health therapy can never be reduced to techniques. The relationship between therapist and client is non-negotiable, in particular, the human element of empathy.


Others are enthusiastically embracing the dizzying advances in technology and the increasingly useful applications in the realm of the human psyche and healing. They maintain that after all is said and done, the bottom line is what will benefit the client most. If the machine will do a better job than the human therapist, so be it!

What do you think?