Imagine standing in an airport terminal, your heart pounding, palms sweating, every noise amplified. But you’re not actually at the airport; you’re in the safety of a therapist’s office, wearing a virtual reality headset. It’s the first step in your journey to overcome a lifelong fear of flying.
Mental health concerns have been on the rise, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified this trend. Over 60% of adults report that the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health (KFF, 2021). While traditional therapy continues to play a vital role, advancements like Virtual Reality (VR) are opening new doors for mental health treatment.
Virtual Reality Therapy: What Is It?
Virtual Reality is a type of therapy that creates a simulated environment for the patient. This technology first emerged in the 1990s and became commercially available around 2007. Therapists can create environments that resemble real-life situations that can trigger anxiety and stress, like the boarding gate area and the plane, complete with the sights and sounds of an airport/airplane. This type of therapy is called Exposure Therapy and is considered the gold standard in treatment for a wide variety of mental health symptoms. Virtual Reality Therapy is a gentle way to provide gradual exposures using technology versus “in vivo” (in real life) and has shown similar efficacy levels to “in vivo” treatment.
In addition to its efficacy, Virtual Reality Therapy offers a flexible and tailored approach that can be adapted to individual needs. Whether helping someone overcome a specific phobia or working on more generalized anxiety, Virtual Reality Therapy can provide lifelike scenarios that can be adjusted in intensity and complexity. This allows for a highly personalized therapy experience, enabling patients to engage with their fears or challenges at a pace that feels right for them. The combination of realism and control is part of what makes Virtual Reality Therapy an exciting and valuable tool in modern mental health care.
What to Expect in Virtual Reality Therapy
Virtual reality therapy works by immersing the patient in a simulated environment. The patient wears a headset that displays the virtual environment. In some cases, the therapist may have the patient wear electrodermal sensors to monitor electrodermal response (EDR), a physiological response to emotional stimuli like stress and anxiety. The therapist can control what the patient sees and experiences, guiding them through different scenarios that help them address their mental health concerns. In the treatment of phobias, the patient is exposed to their phobia/fear in a controlled way that allows a therapist to help them process/cope with their stress response. The therapist will monitor stress levels using both objective and subjective measures to determine how to adjust the environment for the best outcome.
Benefits of Virtual Reality Therapy
- Safe and Controlled Environment: Virtual Reality therapy allows patients to confront their fears and anxieties in a space that’s free from actual risk or harm. The therapist can carefully calibrate the scenario to match the patient’s readiness, gradually intensifying the experience as the patient builds resilience, confidence, and coping skills. This personalized, controlled approach allows profound healing.
- Enhances Engagement: With Virtual Reality, therapy isn’t just a conversation; it’s an immersive experience. Patients often find themselves deeply engaged in the scenarios, working closely with their therapists to navigate them. This engagement can make the therapy process more dynamic, interactive, and effective, helping patients overcome their mental health issues more quickly and with lasting impact.
- Wide Range of Applications: Virtual Reality therapy isn’t limited to a single mental health issue; it can be applied to a broad spectrum of conditions. Whether dealing with specific phobias like flying, heights, or insects, or more complex conditions like anxiety disorders, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), VR offers a versatile and adaptable treatment option.
- Tailored Treatment: Every patient is unique, and VR allows therapists to acknowledge and honor that uniqueness by crafting customized scenarios. Rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach, therapists can create experiences that specifically address each patient’s concerns, fears, and goals. This individualized approach often leads to more meaningful progress and better overall outcomes.
- Accessibility and Comfort: Virtual Reality therapy can often be done in the comfort of a familiar therapy office or even at home in some instances. It reduces barriers like travel to specific locations for exposure therapy, making treatment more accessible to those who may have limitations. The comfort of being in a known space while facing fears can increase the willingness to engage in treatment.
The potential benefits of Virtual Reality Therapy extend beyond the therapy room, offering a gentle way to provide gradual exposures and achieve similar efficacy levels to “in vivo” treatment. If you’re curious about whether Virtual Reality Treatment might be a good fit for your treatment, or if you want to explore this exciting option further, reach out to a trained mental health professional like Jack Gordon, MSW, LCSW, who is pioneering this treatment at Cherry Hill Counseling. The future of mental health treatment is here, and it’s offering a new, dynamic way to enhance healing and personal growth.
American Psychological Association. (2017). Using virtual reality therapy to treat PTSD.
Fodor, L. A., Coteț, C. D., Cuijpers, P., Szamoskozi, S., David, D., & Cristea, I. A. (2018). The effectiveness of virtual reality-based interventions for symptoms of anxiety and depression: A meta-analysis. Scientific Reports, 8, 10323. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-28113-7
KFF. (2021). The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use. Retrieved from https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use/