Virtual Reality is widely known for its gaming applications, but this field of technology is no longer just about fun and games. It has evolved into a far-reaching arena of technology that is rapidly spreading across industries. Even the mental health industry is not exempt from VR technology.
The word is getting out about how VR is being used to help people who suffer from anxiety, depression, and phobias. Because of successful virtual reality studies like this one regarding paranoia and social avoidance, this technology is expanding in psychiatry.
Treating Anxiety with Virtual Reality
How can a gamer’s idea of paradise be considered a treatment for anxiety? Both virtual reality and augmented reality have been and are still being thoroughly studied to help improve lives and shape global society for the better.
The Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford has researchers who developed a VR program geared to help resolve the fear of heights. The computer-generated program features a 10-story building with a virtual coach who guided the participants through a series of programmed activities designed to increase in difficulty as they ascend higher into the building.
An assessment, HIQ (Heights Interpretation Questionnaire), was used four weeks after the treatment to determine if any participants were no longer afraid of heights. Of the assessed participants, 69 percent were deemed cured from their fear of heights.
Another experiment at Nottingham Trent University by Gareth Walkom, a student, developed a virtual reality application to aid people like him who experience issues with stuttering and other such speech impediments. The software uses eye-tracking technology via a virtual reality headset, which monitors anxiety and stress levels in a range of scenarios, then it offers feedback related to managing stress levels.
Walkom feels this is a good way for people with stress-related stuttering to practice talking in front of an audience in a safe environment. This is called exposure therapy, which can be more widely available because of VR technology. People can experience this exposure therapy in the comfort of their home and learn to manage their stress.
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, using virtual reality is proving to be potentially effective for treating anxiety and other psychiatric disorders.
Drawbacks for Using VR to Treat Anxiety
The biggest drawback to using VR technology for exposure therapy to treat anxiety is its time-consuming nature. However, any treatment other than pharmaceutical drugs is going to take time.
Another issue is related to being exposed to anxiety-induced VR environments over and over again, which is the general idea behind exposure therapy. It may prove to be too overwhelming for some people who suffer from anxiety to handle.
Even when the individual knows that their physical setting is safe, the virtual environment is often realistic enough to trigger anxiety attacks. These problems still require testing and study before VR technology becomes a standard of care, but that is where it’s headed.
The idea behind exposure therapy is to desensitize a person to a stressful situation that affects them, building up a tolerance level that makes it less stressful to them.
One example is a VR environment for the fear of flying where the individual is placed in a VR environment that simulates an airplane taking off and landing again and again over a short period of time. Flight phobia VR exposure therapy has generated lasting effects and an exponential reduction in anxiety related to flying.
As VR technology advances in exposure therapy, it will be leveraged as an efficient standard of treatment for anxiety, phobias, substance abuse, and other related mental disorders.