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Virtual Reality offers new treatment options

Tagged In:  Mental Health, Technology

The way we embrace technology to treat an array of illnesses and conditions is constantly evolving. Wearable devices and remote monitoring are playing an increasing role, but a growing sphere of therapy is via Virtual Reality (VR).

While VR has been around for several years in consumer electronics and gaming, it is now showing benefits in the realms of mental health, anxiety and phobia treatments.

VR for mental health therapy

A quarter of us will suffer mental health issues at some stage but the condition receives only 5% of medical research funding and 13% of NHS health expenditure. Treatment options are evolving but technologies are now poised to play an increasing and cost-effective role with Virtual Reality Therapy (VRT) a key aspect of this.

Patients receiving VRT navigate through digitally-created environments and complete tasks tailored to treat a specific ailments, either from a PC or virtual reality headset. An alternative form of exposure therapy where patients interact with harmless virtual representations of traumatic stimuli to reduce fear responses, it has proven especially effective at treating PTSD.

The PTSD treatment system, Virtual Iraq, for example, sees patients – often military personnel - use a head-mounted display and a game pad to navigate around virtual recreations of Iraq and Afghanistan. By being safely exposed to the traumatic environments, they learn to reduce their anxiety.

Portable and flexible treatment

For mental health, VRT can create scenarios which replicate psychological difficulties individuals struggle with, such as venturing outside, flying, heights, or paranoia.

Easy to use and portable, it can be pitched to meet the individual’s needs and altered as they move on to a new stage of overcoming any difficulties. It lets a patient into a scenario in a managed manner and will offer them the opportunity to confront issues in a controlled environment via VRT that they may be initially reticent to do in the outside world.
Because VRT can alter the way we perceive our bodies it could also be helpful in treating eating disorders such as anorexia or body dysmorphia; can have an application for depression; be used to help stroke patients regain muscle control; and to improve social skills in those diagnosed with autism. A therapist is also able to monitor the patient’s reaction.

Promising results from VRT studies

Studies assessing VRT, mainly to treat anxieties and phobias, are showing promising results.

One of the pioneers in the field, Daniel Freeman, professor of clinical psychology at Oxford University, suggests: “There are very few conditions VR can’t help, because, in the end, every mental health problem is about dealing with a problem in the real world, and VR can produce that troubling situation.”

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