Online Therapy Services: A Therapeutic Use Of Modern Technology

By Julia Thomas|Updated August 4, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Aaron Dutil , LMHC, LPC

In recent years, the advance and spread of technology in counseling have allowed therapists to put the technology of virtual reality therapy to use in helping their clients overcome fear, anxiety, pain, phobias, brain injuries, addictions, and PTSD in a virtual reality world. Thisvirtual reality therapy treatment does have a few drawbacks, but overall, early results have been promising. A look at this new type of treatment can reveal how it's used and why it works.

A counselor can help you find out your need for this type of counseling. A counselor can help you find out your need for this type of counseling. A counselor can help you find out your need for this type of counseling. A counselor can help you find out your need for this type of counseling. A counselor can help you find out your need for this type of counseling. A counselor can help you find out your need for this type of counseling. A counselor can help you find out your need for this type of counseling. A counselor can help you find out your need for this type of counseling. A counselor can help you find out your need for this type of counseling
Virtual Therapy is An Excellent Way to Use Technology in a Positive Way

But What Is Virtual Therapy In Reality?

Virtual reality therapy, also called virtual reality exposure therapy, allows you to enter a virtual world or virtual environments that are carefully constructed to increase your exposure to negative stimuli, so you can build resilience and emotional strength. Becoming engrossed in a virtual reality environment can also help you shift your attention away from pain.

Virtual Reality Definition

To understand virtual reality therapy, you have to know what virtual reality (VR) is. VR refers to a virtual world that can be created through the use of technology. When you use VR equipment, you can enter virtual environments that are so detailed that they seem real. Your senses accept this world almost completely while you're in it. While it's true that at any time, you can remind yourself that it isn't real, you'll physically and mentally respond to it in the moment as if it were real. It helps you practice in vivo exposure to stimuli, instead of having to imagine it, as is the case with imaginal exposure.

So, What Is Digital Therapy?

Virtual reality therapy or exposure therapy, makes use of a digital world created by VR technology to put you in situations you can learn from. If the goal is to overcome a fear, you might be exposed to the thing you fear, with thisexposure based therapy gradually increasing over several sessions. The behavioral sciences therapist also provides therapy before, after, and sometimes during your online experience to help you process what you've seen in the healthiest way possible.

VR's Many Therapeutic Uses

Already, virtual reality therapy has been used in several specific conditions. These include:

  • Fear of flying
  • Fear of public speaking
  • Fear of spiders
  • School phobia in children
  • Pain, particularly pain from severe burns
  • PTSD
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Eating disorders

Nuts And Bolts Of VR Counseling

Because virtual reality therapy relies on technology, the degree of its usefulness has a lot to do with the equipment and programs used. As the technology for VRT advances, the results from the therapy are likely to improve.

Equipment Used In Online Counseling

The first virtual reality equipment used was simply a computer and mouse with a program appropriate to the condition to be treated. More recently, VRT clients have used VR headsets for more complete immersion in the digital world. A variety of programs are available, each suited to treat different conditions or a certain vr group. CAVE is an advanced VR environment that is presented to the client as they sit in a cube-like room. The projectors for the CAVE respond to the movements of the client and allows them to be totally immersed in the VR experience. The U.S. Military is currently funding a large amount of virtual reality therapy or exposure therapy research in order to treat combat veterans with PTSD.

A counselor can help you find out your need for this type of counseling. A counselor can help you find out your need for this type of counseling. A counselor can help you find out your need for this type of counseling. A counselor can help you find out your need for this type of counseling. A counselor can help you find out your need for this type of counseling. A counselor can help you find out your need for this type of counseling. A counselor can help you find out your need for this type of counseling. A counselor can help you find out your need for this type of counseling. A counselor can help you find out your need for this type of counseling
Virtual Therapy is An Excellent Way to Use Technology in a Positive Way

How It Works

Virtual reality therapy is typically a part of a larger therapeutic intervention. For the VR part, the client is exposed to a specially designed online environment with stimuli they have previously associated with fear or unpleasant situations. This is called exposure therapy, or if it is used long term, it may be prolonged exposure therapy. The first scenes you see might contain just a few instances of these stimuli. Over the course of therapy, the negative stimuli increase in number and intensity. Being exposed to your greatest fears helps your body and mind become more used to them so that they no longer provoke anxious or fearful feelings. It is thought that this type of in vivo exposure can be more helpful than imaginal exposure to aid with anxiety disorders, which involves you imagining situations.

Drawbacks And Limitations

Early results of virtual reality therapy have been positive, depending on the inclusion criteria of the study and research conducted. The main drawback is the cost of the equipment and programs needed to do this therapy. Because of this, virtual reality therapy isn't available to many people. However, as these headsets become more widespread, cost effectiveness shouldn’t be an issue.

This type of therapy can also cause what is known as VR sickness. People who have this condition due to prolonged exposure to a VR environment may experience flashbacks, motion sickness, vertigo, seizures, and antisocial or nervous behavior. These symptoms are most likely to occur after 30 minutes or more of VR therapy. However, the problem is minimal, because digital therapy sessions are usually conducted during shorter sessions.

How A Counselor Works In VR

Virtual reality therapy is more than just sitting behind a display or wearing a VR headset. Serious therapy goes along with the digital scenes. Typically, VR therapy is bracketed by talk counseling before and after to put the experience into perspective and apply it to the client's life. Therapists may undergo VR training to help make their exposure therapy treatments more effective. A physical therapist may also learn more about how to help their patients through VR.

Understanding Your Unique Problems

When you first go in to see a therapist for virtual reality exposure therapy, the therapist has to speak to you to determine the nature and extent of your problem. Human behavior exhibited is different for everyone, so a therapist must know what symptoms you have and what causes you anxiety or fear. You may have one or more sessions before you're placed in the digital environment via technology. After you complete a short VR session, your therapist may work with you using cognitive behavioral treatment or some other treatment modality. This can allow the exposure therapy to be even more effective, in some cases.

Recommending VR Counseling

When you see a therapist, they may decide to recommend you undergo virtual reality exposure therapy. Their decision is based on the type and source of your problem. It may also include your personal characteristics that make you more or less likely to benefit from VR exposure therapy counseling. When they are satisfied that the benefit outweighs the cost, they can officially recommend virtual reality therapy. However, you'll have to speak to your insurance company to find out if this type of therapy is covered for your condition.

Virtual Therapy Techniques

Virtual reality therapy techniques and exposure therapy are sure to develop more as time goes by. Currently, the main techniques in place are virtual reality exposure therapy, or VRET, for anxiety disorders, and a type of cognitive or cognitive behavioral treatment that uses VR as a tool. The computer-generated online environment can also be used as an educational experience or as a distraction from pain.

Immersive Vs Non-Immersive Techniques

The CAVE-like environment provides a totally-immersive mode of VR treatment. While using the CAVE, your experience is totally controlled by the VR programming and your own reactions to it. However, if you are using non-immersive equipment like a desktop-like display, you are still exposed to stimuli from the actual world. Either way, this can be considered exposure therapy.

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

VR Exposure Treatment

Virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) is the type of exposure therapy treatment used to give the client a sense of experience and familiarity with the frightening stimuli. When we're afraid of something, we become anxiously aroused by the sights and sounds we associate with that thing. The goal of this exposure therapy is to expose you to those stimuli in a non-threatening environment so your mind and body can learn not to become overly alerted when you're exposed to the same stimuli in real life.

VR As An Aid For CBT

VR and CBT can be used together to help clients overcome fears, both through exposure and through replacing unhelpful thoughts with more beneficial ones. For example, a child with school phobia could be put in a VR environment with the stimuli they associate with negative experiences at school. Then, cognitive behavioral treatment helps them find new ways to think about those experiences and feelings. Because this all happens in the digital world rather than at school, the therapist is right there with them, able to observe their reactions and help them make cognitive changes in the moment.

Is Virtual Reality Therapy Right For You?

If you have fears, phobias, pain, or other feelings that are heightened when you're exposed to certain stimuli, virtual reality therapy may be beneficial for you. You'll need to discuss your problem with a therapist first to see if you are a suitable candidate for VRT.

Virtual reality therapy and exposure therapy represent a major expense for most people. So, it's very important to make sure that you don't rush into it just because it's the latest thing. A therapist can help you find out your need for this type of therapy. If you and the therapist decide to go forward with it, you need to make sure that the therapist has experience using VR therapy. The therapist can help you access the care if you need it and it's the right treatment for you.

Conclusion For Online Counseling

Many people can benefit just as well from any of a variety of talk therapies. Talk therapies have been proven effective for many years. Techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy, psychotherapy, play counseling, and others can help you overcome your issues if VR exposure therapy is out of your financial reach.

Counseling At BetterHelp

Licensed psychotherapists are available online at BetterHelp for help with overcoming fears, pain, phobias and PTSD. Even if you decide to go into VR counseling later, it makes sense to begin with a less expensive alternative that might take care of the problem by itself. Then, if you decide you need traditional counseling enough that you're willing to pay the cost, you'll already be on the road to recovery before you begin.

Helpful mental health resources delivered to your inbox
For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns
Speak with a Licensed Therapist
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.