September 21

A New Way for Therapists to Get Inside Heads: Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality (VR) is an innovative psychotherapy method aimed at improving the treatment of various mental disorders (phobias, anxiety disorders, and PTSD).

Twenty years of psychological research have proven the improvement of traditional therapy in all directions with the use of VR technology. Until recently, it was only available in medical centers and university research laboratories.

Virtual Reality offers clear benefits in treating anxiety. Previously, a necessary part of therapy was exposure to a frightening situation, first in your imagination, and then necessarily live, that is, to fly an airplane, drive a car, enter elevators, go on stage in front of an audience, climb on roofs, feed spiders, etc. When it comes to unpleasant frightening memories - it becomes difficult for a person to imagine them. This is why phobias and PTSD have been so "difficult" to get rid of - people tend to avoid the phobia. The dropout rate from therapy was significant.

Now all these situations can be tested and trained in a psychotherapist's office using Virtual Reality. Simpler, easier and much cheaper, and most importantly - by controlling the degree of impact - from the "weakest" degree of anxiety in the situation to the "strongest", repeating as much as you want and need, gradually moving on to an increasingly difficult task, sometimes even exceeding reality itself ... You can independently control most of the session time and objectively assess your progress using biofeedback (these are sensors that attach to your fingers), which objectively shows how you are feeling and demonstrates your progress. Thanks to VR, you can more easily and quickly solve the problem of phobias and anxiety disorders.

Of course, VR is only a tool, and the main thing is psychotherapy itself, but it is so convenient to have any phobic situation at hand so that, being right in it, you can change your feelings, work out your thoughts, and train your behavior. This is very effective because only being in the very situation that creates a feeling of anxiety or fear, you get access to the thoughts that create such an inappropriate emotion, and only here, in this place where "everyone converges" - can these thoughts be caught, replaced and thus you change the emotion. The main rule is that emotion is a reaction to thoughts about a situation. You need to be able to distinguish between dangerous situations and scary situations. Be able to separate thoughts and feelings to manage your feelings. Anxious patients with phobias have inappropriate responses to non-dangerous situations that are perceived as very scary. Awareness of your feelings and thoughts, repeated training in the most phobic situations leads to damping of fear and eliminates the symptoms of anxiety. It is good when the reactions are adequate to the situations. Many people, out of fear of life, limit themselves so much that they do not live their lives. By repetition of exposure and re-awareness, we learn not to be afraid of situations and places, and to relate to many things calmly. To live, and not interfere with your life. This is how we conquer our fear, this is how we develop our skills. Overcoming anxiety - a person finds HIMSELF and begins to live his OWN LIFE.

The very idea of ​​VRT is not new, but until recently the technology was not widespread due to the high cost and complexity of the equipment. Now the appearance of more advanced, inexpensive, and mobile technology opens up the possibility of widespread provision of psychological assistance using virtual reality.

VRT is used to improve conditions such as:

  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),
  • phobias (social phobia, acrophobia (fear of heights), fear of flying, fear of public speaking, fear of driving),
  • anxiety disorders,
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD),
  • panic attacks,
  • psychosomatic pain syndromes.

VRT can also be used as part of a rehabilitation program for patients with autism and schizophrenia by improving their social activity.

VR psychotherapy helps to overcome: fear of public speaking, claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces), acrophobia (fear of heights), fear of air travel; fear of driving, arachnophobia (fear of spiders), agoraphobia (fear of large open spaces), fear of the dark, fear of blood (injections and medical interventions), and PTSD (post-accident, rape, assault, and war syndrome).

It has been scientifically proven that Virtual Reality, due to the power of the effect of engaging/absorbing attention, can reduce the subjective sensation of pain by up to 60%. It is successfully used for non-drug pain relief in minor medical interventions (dressings for burn patients, painful procedures, dentistry, etc.), as well as for chronic, phantom pain. VR meditations and self-hypnosis can help relieve depression, relieve pain and improve sleep in children in pediatric wards and cancer patients.

What projects based on the application of virtual reality therapy have already been launched in the world? There is a small overview.

  1. Bravemind. A joint project of the University of California and the Pentagon; task - the treatment of PTSD in military personnel; widely used in the US Army.
  2. Virtually better. VR-therapy system for mental disorders. Consists of a customizable virtual reality environment, vibrotactile platform, and olfactory machine that create the full range of stimuli associated with the simulated situation. Software for dealing with phobias, including fear of flying, heights, public speaking, and the storm. In development - projects for the treatment of childhood anxiety and social phobia.
  3. Limbix. VR-therapy system for clinical use. Treatment of various mental conditions and disorders.
  4. Beyond sports. VR-therapy system for PTSD, based on desensitization and processing by eye movements (DPDG-therapy, EMDR).
  5. Virtual Reality Medical Center. A VR-based aerophobia treatment system that includes a device and software that simulates a flight.
  6. Psious. Universal VR platform for psychiatrists and psychotherapists, used for VR therapy of the widest range of mental disorders.
  7. DEEP. A VR meditation game where the user explores the underwater world using their breath through biofeedback.
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