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VR and exposure therapy

Updated: Aug 24, 2022

Virtual reality experiences have become something of a hot topic in the 21st century. From technological advances in the gaming sector, comes the opportunity for immersive moments that have the power to transport to anywhere in the World. Now, health professionals are looking at this tool and how it can support patients in a range of situations. One of them: exposure therapy for individuals with phobias and social anxiety. So, how does it work, and can it help you to overcome your fears?

What is VR exposure therapy?

Exposure therapy is the idea of flooding an individual with experiences of the thing that they fear, or causes them stress. It is a form of cognitive behavioural therapy which empowers patients to build coping mechanisms as they are presented with stimuli of the thing that they fear. When we do this using virtual reality, in particular using a VR headset, supported by a therapist, patients are able to experience a range of exposures which will support them and their coping mechanisms around their phobias. 

For example, if you have a fear of flying, you may be exposed to a virtual reality experience of walking through a quiet airport. So, wearing a headset, the experience you have will be controlled by a therapist, who will, in time, gradually alter what you are exposed to. From passing through security, a walkthrough of an empty plane, to an experience of taking off or landing on a plane as a passenger, the exposures will become increasingly intense but always in conjunction with structured support advice for coping strategies from a professional. 

But why virtual reality?

As the demand for mental health services is increasing globally, the number of support networks and providers has remained much the same. And, despite swathes of evidence regarding the effectiveness of exposure therapy, it is a relatively underutilised treatment approach for sufferers of social anxiety and phobias. As a result, professionals are looking at virtual reality experiences with a view to increasing availability of exposure therapy.

Most notably, virtual reality offers therapists a platform to expose patients to a range of experiences, all within their normal treatment settings. Fear of heights? Patients and therapists no longer have to climb those stairs to practice exposure therapy. Together, they can stay inside and use an interactive exposure which will meet the patients needs just the same.

To follow that, the adaptability of the technology is another win for such an approach. Therapists can vary the intensity of exposures at the touch of a button. This means more meaningful, individualised sessions on a regular basis. Implementing these changes with such ease will lead to positive results for individuals across a range of phobias. 

Can it really transform therapy?

Using virtual reality is as close as you can get to real life, without going into real life. All the while, the results are suggesting that this approach to exposure therapy is having a positive impact on patients. So, it comes as no surprise that with 21st century technology and the demand for mental health services that VR exposure therapy is at the cutting edge of support mechanisms for people with social anxiety and phobias.

The aforementioned adaptability of the technology points towards a versatile tool that therapists will choose time and again. The ease of organising meaningful exposures, the immersive experiences and the safe setting in a controlled therapy room are further strong positives to the approach. Not to forget that such an approach is specific and will mean targetted support will be available without long wait times, which is what we have come to expect from the current healthcare system. In short, virtual reality exposure therapy has the power to change the game when it comes to phobias and social anxiety.

oVRcome are developing a range of virtual reality experiences to support individuals with their fears or anxiety. So, if you have a fear of heights, a phobia of needles, or demonstrate the indicators for social anxiety, the team at oVRcome can help. Get in touch today, or stay tuned for more updates on the project.

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