Due to its effectiveness and expanding applications in psychiatry, VR is fast emerging as a new powerful tool in treating a range of anxiety disorders.
VR is not merely a gaming technology. With its ability to provide an immersive virtual reality experience, VR is increasingly finding new applications in treating a variety of anxiety and anxiety-based disorders in psychiatry.
While the potential of VR in helping people with mental illness is well known to medical fraternity, high equipment costs have been a barrier in deploying VR-based tools so far.
Now with equipment costs going down and more evidence emerging on the effectiveness of VR-based techniques, it’s likely that virtual reality applications will proliferate in the treatment of a wide variety of anxiety disorders.
The go-to standard treatment for anxiety disorders in psychiatry is in-vivo exposure therapy wherein a person is gradually exposed to the feared object (such as a cockroach or thunderstorm) or situation (public speaking or riding an elevator) in a controlled way and in a safe environment forcing him or her to face their fear rather than flee it until the generated anxiety is manageable.
One of the drawbacks of in-vivo exposure therapy is that it can be time-consuming. Also, being present in an anxiety-inducing situation can be too much for the affected individual to handle. When treating people with fear of flying, it can even be cost-prohibitive to place them on an airplane in a controlled manner.
How Does Virtual Reality Help In Treating Anxiety Disorders?
VR systems allow care providers to create virtual computer-generated environments in a safe and controlled setting in which individuals suffering from anxiety are placed to create a sense of presence and immersion in the feared environment. For example, people with a fear of flying can be put into a VR environment where they can ‘take off’, ‘fly’, and ‘land’ in a virtual airplane again and again in a short span of time, which allows them to be desensitised to airplanes and build sufficient anxiety-tolerance levels. This VR Exposure Therapy to flight phobia has produced lasting and significant reduction in flight-related anxiety.
The VR applications have also been studied on other types of anxiety-spectrum disorders such as schizophrenia, panic disorder, acute and chronic pain, social disorder, addictions such as smoking, PTSD, eating disorders, etc., and the body of evidence suggests that VR can be a very effective part of treatment for all these mental health conditions.
- A randomized controlled study found VR exposure as advantageous, cost effective and more practical over standard CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) in treating Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD). Outcome measures of anxiety reduction were more significant with VR than in-vivo exposure and these improvements were maintained in a six-month follow-up test.
- A review of various research studies of application of VR in treating PTSD has revealed that VR Exposure-Based Therapy has been effective in treating PTSD with high patient satisfaction and acceptance. A case study reported that a survivor of the World Trade Centre attacks who suffered from PTSD was treated with VR Exposure after she failed to improve with traditional exposure therapy and showed 83% reduction in depression symptoms and 90% reduction in PTSD symptoms.
- A 2015 meta-analysis of VR Exposure Therapy found that gains made through VR when treating anxiety and anxiety-related disorders carry over into real life and VR therapy produces significant behaviour changes in real-life situations. The study strongly supported VR in treating specific phobias.
- VR also appears to be a promising platform to teach social skills in children with autism spectrum disorders. A research study examined the impact of Virtual Reality Social Cognition Training on autistic children and found an improvement in emotion recognition, social attribution and analogical reasoning.
- People suffering from severe mental illness often have low employment rates with job interviews forming a critical barrier in securing competitive employment. VR-based job interview training was found to significantly improve job interviewing skills in them increasing their chances of receiving job offers (51% among trainees versus 25% in control group). Similar training to young adults with high-functioning autism was also found to improve their vocational outcomes.
VR in psychiatry is a rapidly evolving field and as VR technology advances more ways of leveraging it in psychiatry will be investigated. VR-based interventions in substance abuse and related disorders, internet-based applications in treating depression, ‘telemental’ approach to deploy VR tools for remote mental health visits, VR software made available over internet to treat phobias and smartphone based applications for treating mental illnesses and improving social skills are some of the emerging fronts where VR holds promise.