Virtual Reality Takes on Mental Therapy Applications

by Guy Frum

Virtual Reality (VR) is already a huge hit in the gaming community, and with every passing week it’s garnering more acceptance for business training, education, and exercise uses.
But one of the silver linings of life during the pandemic is seeing how VR can be made for medical uses as well, and not just for doctors and nurses to practice new techniques on.
Researchers are finding that Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET) is proving to be a new way to help patients get over their fears of traumatic stimulus without being exposed to the stimuli in their actual form. The idea is to gain the benefits of overcoming and/or managing trauma through a virtual exposure situation.

A VRET stuy put on by the Massey University Strategic Excellence Research Fundand Otago Polytechnic Auckland International Campus has reviewed several studies of how VRET could be used to treat anxiety.
This immersive therapy is believed to be able to make huge strides in certain healthcare conditions that are difficult to assist with, especially when face-to-face therapy is still a struggle for some to accomplish.
By mixing VRET and established practices, scientists can do a better job of fighting conditions and augmenting techniques, such as combining VR with cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), which is often used to battle things like obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety.The research paper’s authors include:
Dr. Nilufar Baghaei, Vibhav Chitale (members of the Games and Extended Reality Lab at Massey University, New Zealand), and Professor Richard Porter (faculty at the Department of Psychological Medicine at the University of Otago, New Zealand).
In a joint statement, they said: “VRET allows for customizable virtual environments wherein a patient is exposed to a feared stimuli in a safe and controlled environment.
Due to the nature of VR, the patients feel an engaging and immersive experience within the virtual world. The virtual world can be controlled by the mental health professional, enabling total control of the exposure, and allowing for the manipulation of scenarios specifically tailored towards the individual undergoing the sessions.”

It’s a great fit because it allows innovation to blend with health, safety, and a lower cost of both materials and risk, for therapists seeking to help patients from afar. Whether a person’s fear is heights, snakes, deep water, public speaking, VR technology can be used to realistically emulate that trauma to keep the person safe and the costs from becoming exorbitant.
If successful on this first level of trials, VRET could eventually be used to fight painful disorders such as schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
There has been some use of this already; a 2019 clinical trial that took place in the UK where VR therapy helped patients with schizophrenia by recreating stressful situations and helping clients learn how to re-engage the real world in a controlled environment.