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Expanding Mental Health Uses for Virtual Reality

  • June 21, 2021
  • Anxiety, Patients and Families, Serious mental illness, Trauma

Virtual reality technology is increasingly being used to support mental health and treat a variety of mental health disorders, especially as the technology becomes more familiar and more affordable. Virtual reality (VR) offers several advantages, including convenience and the ability to adapt and individualize it. Among the conditions being effectively treated with VR are PTSD, anxiety and phobias.

Anxiety, Stress and VR

Substantial research supports the effectiveness of VR therapy. A 2018 review study of the use of this therapy for anxiety disorders found most studies reported positive outcomes despite limitations of the technology. With phobias, for example, VR offers an efficient way to gradually expose an individual to a realistic situation to help reduce fear and anxiety. The exposure can be experienced repeatedly in a controlled way more efficiently than having to physically go to a location or recreate the situation of the phobia.

VR technology is also being used to manage stress and build resilience through mindfulness-based interventions. In a study of its use to support mindfulness practice, participants described the experience as “relaxing, calming, and peaceful” and said the visual and auditory elements served as anchors for attention. The study authors suggest that VR may help address the challenges of mindfulness by creating a sense of presence in a tailored environment, reducing distractions and mind-wandering, and helping individuals focus attention on the present.

One example of a virtual reality mindfulness program was developed in a collaborative effort between Johns Hopkins and BehaVR. The program is designed for use in six 20-minute sessions in which users learn new resilience and coping skills to help manage stress through a guided session in a “into a soothing, immersive VR environment.”

VR Treatments for Cognitive Impairments

Cognitive impairments are common in many psychiatric disorders and neurological conditions and can have a significant impact on functioning and quality of life. Among the major obstacles in cognitive rehabilitation interventions are the inability to transfer training to real-life situations and the difficulties maintaining patients’ interest and participation. A new review study from researchers at the University of Copenhagen looks at the use of VR to help address these impairments, such as problems with memory, language, attention, reasoning, and decision-making.

The review authors suggest that VR based cognitive training could help address these barriers. Its engaging, game-like nature can lead to greater motivation and participation in the treatment. The review looked nine studies with randomized controlled trials with patients with mild cognitive impairment, schizophrenia, ADHD, or stroke. Each involved 6 to12 weeks of VR cognitive training.

Overall, the studies showed improvements, primarily in executive function and attention, and promising evidence for VR training to improve cognitive abilities across a range of neuropsychiatric illnesses. Potentially the study authors suggest, this training could be personalized to the specific conditions and cognitive difficulties affecting the everyday life of the patient. The technology also offers the potential to adjust the scenarios to fit and individual’s cultural background, age and other characteristics. By providing a more realistic and relevant experience, patients may be more motivated and more likely to stay engaged, the study authors note.

Helping People with PTSD

Virtual reality is also being effectively used to treat people with PTSD. Much of the work and research around the use of VR with PTSD been focused on veterans who have been exposed to battles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rather than relying on imagination to recreate a scene as typically used for talk therapy treatment of PTSD, virtual reality systems allow a patient to experience the situation leading to the PTSD in a controlled and safe condition. Through the exposure, individuals work to decrease the fear and anxiety associated with the situation. A virtual reality exposure therapy program developed by the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technology, for example, is being used to help treat people with PTSD in more than 60 locations around the country including VA hospitals and military bases. In the addition to the visual display, the simulation system also brings in directional 3D audio, vibrations and smells.


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