Around 18% of all adults deal with an anxiety disorder. Many people struggle to find effective therapy that helps them cope with their issues. However, advances in technology are offering patients a new option. Research is showing that virtual reality is an effective tool in the treatment of depression and anxiety. Typically, virtual reality is used in conjunction with techniques like exposure therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy.
Virtual reality is commonly pictured as people wearing headsets while playing games. VR used for fun and VR used for medical treatment share many technological similarities. For both, the technology uses computer simulation and modeling to create realistic-looking 3D environments. Along with sight, other senses are engaged with the use of things like sensory gloves. Virtual reality was first used in the medical field at the turn of the 21st century. Researchers discovered that playing the VR game SnowWorld reduced pain levels in patients recovering from burns. Since then, VR has been used in a growing number of ways within the medical profession to improve patient outcomes.
Now, it’s been proven to help with a variety of anxiety types. Specifically, when combined with cognitive behavioral therapy, it’s been shown to be very impactful in treating general anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and some phobias. It’s important to remember that most studies looking at the effectiveness of virtual reality have used small numbers of participants. However, the results have been promising, and for people who have struggled with controlling their anxiety or phobias, it’s a relatively low-risk way to try to improve their quality of life and ability to deal with their issues.
The most common way that VR is used in mental health treatment is through virtual reality exposure therapy, or VRET. VRET allows patients to confront a specific experience or object in a simulated environment while under the supervision of a medical professional. People who have a fear of public speaking can practice talking in front of stimulated groups to help them learn coping skills and practice overcoming their fears. Similarly, people with social anxiety can practice going to a job interview or participating in a social outing. Having these experiences under the supervision of a therapist in a safe, simulated environment is helpful for many patients.
Virtual reality can also improve the effectiveness of other therapies. One example is music therapy; one study used a virtual concert hall to provide a place for patients to perform. Another example is art therapy: Instead of simply painting, virtual reality allows patients to enter a painting. VR is also being used to provide biofeedback.
The technology behind virtual reality continues to improve, and as more studies find benefits to using VR to treat anxiety, the adoption of this technique is likely to grow. To learn more about how virtual reality can be used to treat anxiety, check out the following resources: