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Virtual Reality Treatment for Social Anxiety Disorder: Research Shows the Benefits for Your Clients

With a lifetime prevalence of 12.1% [1], social anxiety disorder is one of the most common phobias in America. This social phobia affects over 1.8 million adults each year, over two-thirds of whom experience serious or moderate impairment [2].


For clinicians, this represents both an enormous challenge, as well as an opportunity to make a big impact on the lives of affected Americans. Traditional treatment for social anxiety disorder (SAD) has been comprised of psycho-social interventions including cognitive behavioral therapy, combined with the gold-standard treatment for phobias: exposure therapy.


However, traditional in vivo exposure has several drawbacks. It’s challenging, even terrifying for clients suffering from extreme anxiety disorders, and can take time to implement effectively. Virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) using new tools, including headsets and app-based programs, offers a new technological treatment path.


While virtual reality offers a new paradigm for the treatment of phobias, including SAD, clinicians need to see its effects proven before they can offer it to clients. Today, we’ll explore a systematic review of studies on the efficacy and viability of VRET for social anxiety disorder.


The conclusions drawn by the researchers are positive: VRET offers a number of powerful benefits, to both clinicians and clients. Let’s dive in.



A Systematic Review of Virtual Reality Treatment for Social Anxiety Disorder


The study was published in May 2023, and titled Effectiveness and User Experience of Virtual Reality for Social Anxiety Disorder: Systematic Review [3]. The researchers’ stated objective was to “examine the effectiveness and user experience of contemporary VR interventions among people with SAD.”


User experience is a vital component of the efficacy of new treatment: whether users gravitate towards or shy away from technological interventions can impact attrition rates as well as the all-important client-therapist relationship.


Methodology:

The researchers intended to provide a systematic overview of research into virtual reality therapy for SAD, and initially examined 71 studies which took place between January 1, 2012, and April 26, 2022. Of these 71 studies, 18 met the inclusion criteria of appraising both efficacy and user experience outcomes of immersive VR intervention among people with social anxiety disorder.


Due to data heterogeneity across the included studies, which spanned the globe from Brazil to Korea via Denmark and the United States, a statistical meta-analysis was not possible. Instead, the researchers used a narrative synthesis approach to summarize and explain the findings of the studies.


The findings were favorable for both the user experience of clients in VRET and the treatment outcomes. Here’s what they uncovered.


Conclusions:  Effective, Safe, Usable, and Acceptable


Overall, the research found that virtual reality exposure therapy provides effective, acceptable, usable and safe treatments for adults with social anxiety disorder. 


The researchers noted the low attrition rate in VR treatment, which averaged 11.36% across all studies. Post-treatment surveys showed that symptoms of SAD were reduced for up to one year, demonstrating the long-lasting impact of VRET and as few as four sessions of VRET lead to positive treatment outcomes [4].


For most clinicians, patient outcomes are of primary concern: positively, the researchers stated that “VRET can be a rapidly effective treatment for SAD with the potential to provide long-term symptom improvement.


These results mirror the findings from our own clinical trials [5] which have shown long-lasting benefits from a six-week course of the oVRcome app. Now, you can unlock these benefits for your clients with our Clinician Portal.


Wrapping Up


Metastudies like these increasingly demonstrate that VRET is safe, effective and provides a positive user experience: tap into the power of virtual reality, and support your clients through social anxiety disorder.


Our Clinician service has been designed to facilitate the application of VRET for both your in-person and remote clients. You can expand your practice with new, remote clients and see faster outcomes for your existing clients by prescribing additional exposure therapy as “homework” between sessions.


Create your account in oVRcome’s Clinician Portal today and add your first remote client completely free.


References


1. Harvard Medical School, 2007. National Comorbidity Survey (NCS). (2017, August 21). Retrieved from https://www.hcp.med.harvard.edu/ncs/index.php . Data Table 1: Lifetime prevalence DSM-IV/WMH-CIDI disorders by sex and cohort .



3. Shahid S, Kelson J, Saliba A Effectiveness and User Experience of Virtual Reality for Social Anxiety Disorder: Systematic Review JMIR Ment Health 2024;11:e48916 doi: 10.2196/48916


4. Anderson PL, Price M, Edwards SM, Obasaju MA, Schmertz SK, Zimand E, et al. Virtual reality exposure therapy for social anxiety disorder: a randomized controlled trial. J Consult Clin Psychol. Oct 2013;81(5):751-760.


5. Lacey, C., Frampton, C., & Beaglehole, B. (2022). OVRcome – Self-guided virtual reality for specific phobias: A randomised controlled trial. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. https://doi.org/10.1177/00048674221110779

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