Virtual Reality Therapy: Therapeutic Uses Of Modern Technology

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated May 14, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The advance of technology in counseling has allowed therapists to utilize virtual reality technology to help clients overcome fear, anxiety, phobias, posttraumatic stress disorder, and other psychiatric disorders in a controlled environment. Virtual reality based interventions, guided by a licensed professional counselor, offer a valuable tool for addressing mental health issues. Although virtual reality therapy could have side effects, ongoing research and early studies provide insight into the possibilities and benefits.

Gain Insight Into The Technological Advances Of Modern Therapy

What Is Virtual Reality Therapy? 

Virtual reality therapy can allow you to enter a virtual world designed to increase your exposure to stimuli you feel afraid of aiming to reduce patient fears over time. 

VR based therapy may help with pain management, life stress, improving memory, and reducing symptoms of social anxiety. Additionally, feeling engrossed in a virtual reality environment may help you shift your attention away from pain.

In VR exposure therapy, guided by a licensed counselor, you may partake in exposure and response prevention (ERP) counseling through a virtual world ERP therapy, an effective treatment for anxiety disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), involves exposure to stimuli that raise your anxiety levels eventually allowing them to plateau over time as you begin to perceive your fears in a non-threatening manner.  

Virtual Reality Definition

To understand virtual reality therapy, using VR environments, you may want to learn more about virtual reality (VR).

VR refers to a virtual world that can be created through technology. When you use VR equipment, you can enter virtual environments that seem real. Many people do this through a headset that covers the eyes and sometimes the ears. Through the screen over your eyes, you can see a box screen which makes it appear that you are inside the digital environment.

Virtual reality game developers work to make the graphics and appearance of items in the VR space appear natural, which can cause your brain to believe it is. This effect may be caused by perspective, lighting, and 3D media. Although you may understand that it is not real, you could react subconsciously to the game as though it is. Outside of the potential fun, it can help you practice exposure to stimuli instead of imagining them, as with imaginal exposure therapy. 

How Does Virtual Exposure Therapy Work? 

Virtual reality exposure therapy using a virtual reality simulation, employs a digital world created by VR technology to engage you in social interactions or situations from which you can learn. If the goal is to overcome a fear, such as panic disorder you might be exposed to the stimuli you fear, with the level of fear-based triggers increasing over several sessions. The dynamic interaction between you and the virtual environment differentiates actual exposure therapy from virtual reality, as you cannot touch or physically interact with anything you see in the session, even if it seems real.  

During the initial assessment, you might speak to your therapist before, during, and after the VR session to discuss what you are seeing, allowing for emotional processing. In exposure therapy, a therapist may track your level of significant distress from 1-10 or 10-100 in intervals of a few minutes. As your anxiety reduces in reaction to one stimulus, you may view another. Although you cannot touch the images in the VR system, you may feel that they are in front of you. This feeling could promote further healing through exposure and enhance treatment. 

Traditional exposure therapy, rooted in clinical psychiatry, is often taught during a session and may be practiced at home, outside of therapy. With VR therapy, clients can practice exposure in the same room as their therapist, making it a viable tool with potentially live results. Studies show that virtual reality exposure is more effective than in vivo exposure for those with phobias of heights or flying.

Therapeutic Uses For VR

Virtual reality therapy has been used for several conditions and symptoms, including: 

  • Fear of flying

  • Fear of public speaking

  • Fear of spiders

  • School phobia in children

  • Chronic pain and burn pain 

  • PTSD

  • Reducing drug related cues
  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Eating disorders

  • Strokes

Search for "virtual reality therapy near me" if you're looking for a center or therapist that offers this service in your area. 

The Technical Aspects Of VR Therapy 

As virtual reality therapy relies on technology, the degree of its effectiveness may depend on the equipment and programs used, as well as the clinical adoption of these advancements. As the technology for VRT advances, the results from the therapy might improve. The provider who works with you could be a physical therapist and mental health professional simultaneously or one or the other. 

Equipment Used In Online Counseling

The first virtual reality equipment used was a computer with an installed program appropriate to the condition or symptoms of a client. More recently, VRT clients have used VR headsets for complete immersion in the digital world. 

Various programs are available, each suited to treat different conditions or concerns. CAVE is an advanced VR environment presented to clients sitting in a cube-like room. The projectors for the CAVE respond to the client's movements and allow them to be immersed in the VR experience.

The US military has funded further research into virtual reality therapy to treat combat veterans experiencing PTSD and improve the equipment utilized.

Gain Insight Into The Technological Advances Of Modern Therapy

Drawbacks And Limitations To VR Counseling 

Early results of virtual reality therapy have been positive, depending on the inclusion criteria of the research conducted. However, there are potential drawbacks, such as the cost of the equipment and programs needed to do this therapy. Because of this, virtual reality therapy may not be available to people yet. However, as headsets become more popular, the cost could be reduced. 

Additionally, this type of therapy can cause a symptom called virtual reality sickness, which is a type of motion sickness. People experiencing VR sickness might experience motion sickness, vertigo, nervousness, or dizziness. These symptoms might occur 30 minutes or more after using a headset or immediately upon use. If you feel sick while using the headset, let your provider know. 

How A Counselor Works In VR

Virtual reality therapy can be more than sitting behind a display or wearing a VR headset. Counseling will often accompany virtual scenes. A counselor may speak with the client before and after to put the experience into perspective and apply it to the client's life. Therapists may also undergo VR training to improve their exposure therapy treatments.

Taking Client Information 

When you visit a therapist for virtual reality exposure therapy, the therapist may speak with you to determine your symptoms, any diagnoses, health history, and more. They might also learn about the specific fears that you hope to treat. 

You may have one or more sessions before you utilize the digital environment via technology. After you complete a short VR session, your therapist may work with you using cognitive behavioral treatment or another modality. 

Recommending VR Counseling

When you see a therapist, they may recommend you undergo virtual reality exposure therapy. Their decision could be based on the type and source of your fears or concerns. Not all therapists offer this treatment, so you may be referred to a specialist. However, speak to your insurance company to determine if this type of therapy is covered. 

Virtual Therapy Techniques

The primary techniques for virtual reality therapy are virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) for anxiety disorders and a type of cognitive-behavioral treatment that uses VR as a tool. The computer-generated online environment can also be used as an educational experience. 

CAVE Treatment 

The CAVE environment provides an immersive mode of VR treatment. While using the CAVE, your experience is controlled by the VR programming and your reactions to it. However, if you use non-immersive equipment like a desktop display, you may be exposed to stimuli that take away from the experience. 

Non-Immersive VR Techniques 

Non-immersive VR techniques may have limited success because of their inability to completely engage the client in what is happening in the digital environment. Immersive techniques can make it easier for the client to experience the virtual environment as if it were an actual situation.

VR Exposure Treatment

Virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) is the type of exposure therapy used to give the client a sense of experience and familiarity with frightening stimuli. This therapy aims to expose you to those stimuli in a non-threatening environment so your mind and body can learn not to feel hyperalert when exposed to the same stimuli in real life.

People might use exposure therapy for symptoms of OCD, phobias, or anxiety disorders. Your therapist might check in with you during the practice to ensure you are safe and find the practice effective.  

VR To Aid In Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy 

VR and CBT can be used together to help clients overcome fears through exposure and replace unhelpful thoughts with more beneficial ones. For example, a child with a phobia of school could be put in a VR environment with the stimuli they associate with negative experiences at school. 

After the VR session, their therapist might use cognitive-behavioral therapy to help them identify new ways to think about those experiences and feelings. Because the session happens in the digital world rather than at school, the therapist can be with the child, able to observe their reactions and help them make cognitive changes at the moment.

Is Virtual Reality Therapy Right For You?

Virtual reality therapy may benefit you if you have fears, phobias, pain, or other concerns that are heightened when you're exposed to certain stimuli. Discuss your problem with a therapist beforehand to see if you are a suitable candidate for VRT. This treatment method combines aspects of occupational therapy and psychoanalysis to help you overcome fears and solve life's problems.

Virtual reality therapy and exposure therapy represent significant expenses for many people. Consider your options before choosing any method of care. You can also try in-person or online exposure therapy without the VR headset. A therapist can help you determine if this type of counseling would benefit you.  

Other Forms Of Virtual Counseling 

Many people benefit from VR therapy. However, if you cannot partake in it due to financial barriers or availability, you can try other forms of virtual therapy, such as online counseling. Through online therapy, you will meet with a therapist via phone, video, or live chat sessions on a device with an internet connection. After your session, you may be able to message your therapist with further questions. 

Studies show that online therapy is more cost-effective and beneficial for treating symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder than many forms of in-person counseling. You may also benefit from this modality for symptoms related to anxiety or depression, as well as a variety of other concerns. If you're interested in getting started, consider a platform like BetterHelp to learn more about how online therapy could support you. 


Virtual reality therapy is a modern form of technology-based counseling done through a controlled virtual environment. Although the procedure may be costly, it can benefit many anxiety disorders and symptoms. If you're interested in trying VR counseling or receiving further support through talk therapy, consider reaching out to a counselor for further guidance.

For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet Started