Virtual Reality and Social Anxiety
Updated: Aug 24
Once upon a time, virtual reality was touted as the next frontier of gaming, the next step in immersive experiences for the World. While that may still be true, there are businesses driving the technology in a different direction - healthcare. In a society which is struggling to meet the demand of mental health and wellbeing services, the use of virtual reality may well be a key component to effective treatment. So, when it comes to social anxiety, what does that actually mean?
Social anxiety is characterised by an excessive fear of judgement or negative evaluation by others, be it friends, family or complete strangers, in particular these are triggered by social or performance situations. Those with Social Anxiety Disorder may find it difficult to interact with work colleagues, to make friends, or even to have brief conversations with others. Ultimately, excessive social anxiety can lead us to be lonely and reduce our quality of life. It is considered the most common anxiety disorder.
Exposure therapy is a treatment approach where people face their feared situations, with the guidance of a therapist. It is one form of treatment that can be used to reduce excessive anxiety symptoms, such as those presented by someone with social anxiety. But how does it work?
Imagine wearing a virtual reality headset. What you can see, or experience, is a range of situations which can bring about a range of emotions. It might present you with serene beach scene, or a splendid mountain view. But in the instance of exposure therapy, it is utilised to gradually expose patients to the things they fear the most. As such, an exposure in regards to social anxiety might involve a situation that someone might avoid due to a fear of being judged or embarrassed, like delivering a presentation to a group of people. Over time, these exposures will become easier to manage and experience, this is because the goal of entering into such a virtual, social situation is to assist sufferers in recognising specific triggers, facilitating learning that reduces their fear-based beliefs and even an opportunity to practice coping strategies and techniques. Virtual reality exposure therapy forming the basis for treatment can yield very positives results, as researchers have found in the last 12 months.
If you are interested in what virtual reality has to offer for health and wellbeing, in particular for exposure therapy, have a read of last year's blog post on VR and exposure therapy. It outlines what it is, how it works and puts forward arguments for its application in mental health services.
In a meta-analysis of research conducted to ascertain the effectiveness of virtual reality exposure therapy in October last year, it was found that it is an effective approach to treating individuals with social anxiety. This conclusion was drawn on the basis that the data was showing a decline in social anxiety symptoms. So, using emerging digital technology to support the treatment of anxiety disorders is a possible pathway well worth exploring. In particular, the gradual easing in to social experiences through virtual reality and guided cognitive behavioural therapy is a win for those with social anxiety. The control factor which the technology offers can’t be underestimated as a crucial element in the success of the approach.
So what will you think about next time someone says ‘virtual reality’? Sure, your default might still be gaming. But now that there is a tangible application to support the strained healthcare system, maybe you’ll think about that instead. Modern technology continues to demonstrate its potential and supporting individuals with anxiety is a great leap forward - we should definitely sit up and take note.
The team at oVRcome have developed a programme which uses exposure therapy through virtual reality experiences to support those with social anxiety. We have also developed a free Social Anxiety Test which delivers a personalised report to see where you are at. Why not take it today?