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Always getting lost in your own world? This new form of therapy encourages it

Virtual reality therapy: coming to a professional mental health service center near you

There’s no doubt in my mind that virtual reality is cool and I’m not the only one who thinks so.  

Movies like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle show society’s growing obsession with VR, it saturates popular culture in addition to actual VR video games. But it’s not just the film industry and video game corporations whose interest has been piqued by VR: it’s scientists too.

Image result for jumanji welcome to the jungle gif
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson via Giphy.com

A recent study was published this past March within Lancet Psychiatry finding that VR based cognitive behavioral therapy has the ability to reduce momentary anxiety with patients who have a history of psychotic disorders.

Within VR therapy,  patients are able to work through and confront particular issues through an entirely digital atmosphere in which they know are harmless. VR therapy’s recent successes for those with psychotic disorders holds monumental impact for its future. Researchers have been focusing on VR therapy since the 1990s, but their successes were best found in alleviating phobias. Fixing a fear of high places was all VR therapy could manage in the past. Today, VR goes beyond simply curing a fear of clowns or spiders.

Now, more complex mental illnesses such as social anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and psychotic disorders such as paranoid schizophrenia could potentially have quicker solutions in sight.

And with over 15 million Americans suffering from social anxiety mental illnesses alone and 7.7 million Americans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, the implications of this new form of exposure therapy in a more controllable setting is monumental. For those struggling with social anxiety, virtual reality incorporates a relieving safe environment into traditional exposure therapy. In a VR therapy session, the number of people in the room, the amount of noise, and the amount of light can all be controlled – those implications are monumental.

In the real world, tasks, like going grocery shopping or making an order at a coffee shop, can be too much for some people. The security that VR therapy might provide is literally life-changing. With this new study, there’s a building block for countless new studies to be made addressing mental health.  

That’s especially true considering the advancements in VR over the years. When VR research was first introduced, research would have cost tens of thousands of dollars. Today? A session just needs technology running a bill of $100 using new developments such as the Samsung Gear VR that turns your smartphone into a VR device.

What does that mean for those struggling with a mental illness? Researchers noted in “The Use of Virtual Reality Technology in the Treatment of Anxiety and Other Psychiatric Disorders” that due to the past two decades of research, the cost of VR therapy will only continue to decrease. The researchers estimate that VR therapy shall become more available to a wider audience very very soon.

Of course, that doesn’t mean VR therapy is perfect, as it may induce feelings of dizziness and nausea, a side effect known as cybersickness. Even more, because of the current high cost of virtual reality equipment and its bulk, it is often hard to relocate therapy sessions. This means VR therapy might be less accessible for those who can’t leave their homes.

Nonetheless, in 2002 VR therapy was rated third out of 38 interventions to increase in use over the next decade and this recent study certainly proves that prediction to be true. The accessibility of VR therapy will only increase in upcoming years. VR therapy provides a new path for others that traditional therapy might not have done.

Although virtual reality was once thought to be a fantasy, today through VR therapy we have a newfound reality of hope for those with mental illnesses.