Virtual Reality Therapy: The Modernization of Psychiatric Sciences?

Virtual reality (VR) is defined as ‘an artificial environment which is experienced through sensory stimuli provided by a computer, and in which one’s actions partially determine what happens in the environment’ (Merriam-Webster). While its introduction stems from video games, VR presents numerous opportunities for other fields. One of the fields that VR has emerged as a potential tool for development is the world of psychiatric sciences.

Since the 20th century, virtual environments have received a lot of heat for inducing anxiety and aggression in people, eliciting physiological and emotional responses that are comparable to experiences felt in real-life situations. Whether or not this is an accurate statement, the reality is that the virtual world changes the way we feel and behave. Much like when watching shows/movies, we feel for and even get attached to the characters and situations in them. While one could argue that you can avoid these undesired emotions and feelings by avoiding virtual realities, that seems highly unlikely with modern-day “addiction” to such technologies. So where does this leave us? Well, such feeling-inducing technology can be put to better use.

People suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders, anxiety, phobias, etc. have long been treated with the use of exposure therapy, where a patient confronts their trauma through exposure to that experience. While this has proven to be effective in some cases, some argue that it is unethical (produces stress and anxiety) and impractical (e.g. someone afraid of flying cannot buy a plane ticket weekly). The response to these challenges is: Virtual Reality Therapy.

Virtual reality therapy was first introduced in the mid-1990s, when researchers put people with a fear of heights onto virtual balconies to expose them to their source of fear. Similar tests followed for people who experienced trauma (e.g. war veterans, family member deaths, etc.) They began using virtual art assets originally built for games played on the X-box, such as Full Spectrum Warrior. With recent technological developments, such as the oculus rift, VR therapy has become more sophisticated and can reach a wider patient group. There are both a number of benefits and challenges:

• Safe and controlled environment
• Young people may be more comfortable using VR therapy than other methods
• VR therapy allows you to try the therapy in multiple contexts
• VR therapy is more private – less embarrassing as it is not done in public

• Requires well-trained clinical care providers (need to understand the VR technology as well)
• Is it truly the same experience as real exposure therapy?

It remains to be seen whether or not these virtual environments will be able to help people move past traumatic experiences, and whether or not VR therapy will become the dominant practice in anxiety therapy. Only time will tell!



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