How Is Virtual Reality Revolutionizing Mental Health Treatment?

In 2016, Oculus released Rift (referred to as the Oculus Rift), a headset that featured an in-built XYZ axis that allowed players to look around virtual worlds by moving their heads instead of a joystick. The idea intrigued investors and gamers, and the Kickstarter campaign launched in 2012 managed to raise over $2.5 million. 

Despite the drawbacks of Rift, which included low resolutions and a lack of VR games to play, it was deemed a success, and in 2014, Facebook bought Oculus. Under Facebook’s ownership, the technology drastically improved with higher refresh rates, better resolutions and lighter headsets.

When asked about VR, most people will point to video games and vast online worlds that attempt to mimic our own. Yet, scientists across the globe are beginning to examine VRs ability to combat various mental health issues from PTSD to anxiety. 

What Is Exposure Therapy?

Exposure therapy has been around since the 1950s and has successfully treated various mental health disorders, including PTSD, depression and anxiety. Our minds can build up tolerance to certain stimuli in the same way our physical bodies can to certain substances. With exposure therapy, this is done by slowly introducing people to more significant stimuli until they can deal with the actual scenario they are struggling with without issue. 

For example, a person with a fear of elevators can first be shown pictures, followed by standing in front of one. The therapist may then suggest standing inside the elevator without pressing any buttons and finally using it to go up one floor. The idea is that the mind begins associating positive memories and feelings with the stimuli, which helps reduce anxiety. 

Digital Exposure Therapy

While exposure therapy is proven successful in some cases, situations like crowded rooms or small spaces can become too much in the real world. Individuals can quickly become overwhelmed and fall into a full-blown panic attack if they can’t limit their exposure fast. 

Virtual reality has allowed therapists and scientists to tackle this issue by recreating situations that trigger anxiety, including crowded rooms, elevators and even car rides. Revolutionary technology allows therapists more control should the client become overwhelmed, and in a digital world, changing the parameters of a scene can be as simple as moving a slider on a computer. 

Digital Worlds 

Virtual reality has also been used to help stimulate minds in patients suffering from neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s. In Australia, carers and scientists have worked together to create virtual worlds with the sole intention of helping the elderly and those suffering from brain conditions; these worlds feature peaceful scenarios with small events and triggers, both audible and visual. Events such as birds flying past, rain hitting cobblestones and cars in the distance are being found to help patients with neurological conditions. 

Companies have also created worlds that mimic battlefields to help veterans overcome PTSD. The Institute of Creative Technologies managed to recreate a fictional world that mimics Iraq and Afghanistan, with immersive firefights and even exploration options through small towns and highways. The world features day and night scenarios and multiple non-player characters (NPCs) with which users can interact. 

Body Swapping

In addition to controlling the environment a client explores, therapists can also control the avatar they use. Mel Slater from the University of Barcelona has begun to use VR as a therapy method by having the patients play themselves and the psychiatrist. The idea is that we’re good at solving others’ problems because we tend to be more objective, whereas our problems often come from a more subjective point of view. 

The session starts by having the patient explain their problem to a virtual therapist. The programme then records this explanation and swaps the patient’s view to the therapist’s before playing that audio back. The patient then talks to themselves from the therapist’s position, which is thought to trick the brain into thinking it’s advising another person. 

Real-World Benefits

VR technology has already been used to treat various mental health disorders, with many stating that their symptoms began to improve, despite not tackling them in the real world. A special report by the BBC in 2018 featured a woman who struggled with an extreme phobia of heights due to a bad childhood memory. Her experience through VR helped her enough that she could use an indoor jungle gym with her son despite the height. When asked why she was more capable after only a few sessions, she stated that VR offered her the chance to explore without the possibility of injury or death. 

Many mental health disorders can be traced back to trying to prevent catastrophes or some other form of loss. VR technology is beneficial because we can simulate the build-up of consequences without them ever happening, which allows the brain to re-associate positive memories with previous negative experiences.

The Future of VR

Even in its rudimentary form, VR has helped people suffering from phobias or mental health disorders despite the technological limitations. With ever-increasing processing power available alongside more intelligent ways to interact with virtual environments, it’s more likely than ever that VR could be the next great leap in treatments for mental and even physical disorders. 

Currently, the focus is on making the experience more authentic by allowing users to interact and explore without needing controllers. As our understanding of mental health disorders like depression and anxiety develops, we may be able to find more effective simulations that can help with the healing process.

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