Virtual Reality Therapy: A Therapeutic Use Of Technology
By: Julia Thomas
Updated June 05, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Dutil
In recent years, the advance and spread of technology has been blamed for a multitude of problems, including social isolation, increased violence, short attention spans, and more. Now, therapists are putting the technology of virtual reality therapy to use helping their clients overcome fear, anxiety, pain, phobias, brain injuries, addictions, and PTSD. This mode of 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.
What Is Virtual Reality Therapy?
Virtual reality therapy, also called virtual reality exposure therapy, allows you to enter a virtual world that is carefully constructed to increase your exposure to negative stimuli, so you can build resilience and emotional strength. Becoming engrossed in a virtual world 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 a world that is so detailed that it seems 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.
So, What Is Virtual Reality Therapy?
Virtual reality therapy makes use of a virtual 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 exposure gradually increasing over several sessions. The therapist also provides talk therapy before, after, and sometimes during your virtual experience to help you process what you've seen in the healthiest way possible.
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
- Eating disorders
The Nuts and Bolts of VR Therapy
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, results are likely to improve.
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 virtual reality headsets for more complete immersion in the virtual world. A variety of programs are available, each suited to treat different conditions. 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 virtual reality experience. The U.S. Military is currently funding a large amount of virtual reality therapy research in order to treat combat veterans with PTSD.
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 virtual environment with stimuli they have previously associated with fear or unpleasant situations. 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.
Drawbacks and Limitations
Early results of virtual reality therapy have been positive. 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.
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 the cost of virtual reality usually limits treatment to much shorter sessions.
The Therapist's Role
Virtual reality therapy is more than just sitting behind a display or wearing a VR headset. Serious therapy goes along with the virtual scenes. Typically, VR therapy is bracketed by talk therapy before and after to put the experience into perspective and apply it to the client's life.
Understanding the Nature of Problems
When you first go in to see a therapist for virtual reality therapy, the therapist has to speak to you to determine the nature and extent of your problem. You may have one or more sessions before you're placed in the virtual environment via technology. After you complete a short VR session, your therapist may work with you using cognitive behavioral therapy or some other treatment modality.
Recommending VR Therapy
When you see a therapist, they may decide to recommend you undergo virtual reality 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 therapy. 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 Reality Therapy Techniques
Virtual reality therapy techniques are sure to develop more as time goes by. Currently, the main techniques in place are virtual reality exposure therapy and a type of cognitive or cognitive behavioral therapy that uses virtual reality as a tool. The computer-generated virtual 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.
Non-immersive virtual reality techniques have had limited success because of their inability to completely engage the client in what is happening in the virtual environment. Immersive techniques make it easier for the client to experience the virtual environment as if it were an actual situation.
Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy
Virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) is the type of therapy 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 VRET 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 Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
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 virtual reality environment with the stimuli they associate with negative experiences at school. Then, cognitive behavioral therapy helps them find new ways to think about those experiences and feelings. Because this all happens in the virtual 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 represents 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.
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 therapy, and others can help you overcome your issues if VRT is out of your financial reach.
Licensed therapists are available online at Better Help for help with overcoming fears, pain, phobias and PTSD. Even if you decide to go into VR therapy 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 virtual reality therapy enough that you're willing to pay the cost, you'll already be on the road to recovery before you begin.