To visit a museum, to walk on the moon surface, to fly to the seaside for vacations during the pandemic times or to simply be inside your favorite movie does not seem so unusual nowadays. After virtual reality (VR) technology entered our lives from art galleries and schools to the porn industry, it is not a sci-fi dream to be exposed to the experiences which we probably would not ever have in the real world. More and more VR finds its application not only as an entertainment but also as a powerful treatment and diagnosis tool.
Recent research demonstrates the high clinical efficiency of VR therapy in mental health disorders and significant improvement of a patient’s life. Virtual reality exposure therapy was tested to help people with anxiety, weight-related disorders, pain management, phobias, and Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But how does VR exposure therapy work and why it is so effective?
VR vs human brain
According to neuroscience, our brain constantly collects scenes from our daily life and stores them as visual, sensory, and tactile experiences. These experiences allow your brain to predict the best strategies to react to the external world. For example, if one day you didn’t pay attention to the rainy clouds and then you got drenched, next time your brain will create a prediction mechanism: check the weather – it seems it will rain – take your umbrella and put on a raincoat. It looks like a pretty effective strategy but sometimes it could dramatically impair everyday life if a person was exposed to a traumatic experience.
Then, some specific scenes, sounds, and situations could lead to insecurity and anxiety. For example, for people coming from the war zones, seeing thunder and lightning in the sky means not “take your umbrella” but “hide yourself from bombs”. In this case, VR could be helpful as it could represent the same real-world stimuli to the brain, with the only difference that now it could be controlled to help the person overcome an inadequate response to the situation and to learn a new strategy to go through it.
VR exposure therapy
Exposure therapy is a psychological treatment that targets the behaviors that people acquired in response to the situations and memories that provoke fear and anxiety. Avoidance of these negative experiences could lead to the escalation of a further problem. VR exposure therapy allows a gradual and safe exposure of a person to its triggers, to overcome a traumatic experience and to learn how to fight with someone’s individual fears. Moreover, therapists could adapt and control the context of the experience that could offer a safer and private environment for each patient that facilitates the therapy.
It has been demonstrated that VR therapy can reduce anxiety and phobia in patients with claustrophobia, acrophobia, arachnophobia, dental phobia, and social anxiety. Several studies show its effectiveness in the treatment of PTSD in Vietnam and Afghanistan war veterans. Furthermore, some results show higher effectiveness than standard cognitive behaviour therapy.
VR as a treatment of weight-related disorders
The treatment of weight-related disorders using VR is another field that started to evolve rapidly. It is supposed to help people accept their bodies and overcome traumatic experiences which have led to a constant body dissatisfaction. In the first step, individuals could re-experience negative situations seeing them as a first and a third person, supporting and empathizing with themselves. In the second step, VR is used to create an illusion of ownership of a virtual body with different sizes and shapes to help to accept their own real body.
Despite using VR as a therapeutic tool shows promising results in the broad number of cases, its effectiveness and long-term needs further investigation. Also, VR exposure therapy is an expensive technology that hopefully would be more accessible to a wide range of patients in the nearest future.