Virtual Reality In The Treatment of Anxiety Disorders
Virtual Reality (VR), while once only “real” in science fiction books and movies, is now a common and accessible form of technology. Defined as “an artificial world that consists of images and sounds created by a computer and that is affected by the actions of a person who is experiencing it,” VR has been used for various purposes ranging from military simulation to entertainment. In recent years, VR technology has been integrated into the field of psychology as a viable option for enhancing exposure treatment. Virtual Reality Exposure Treatment (VRET), is an effective treatment alternative for anxiety disorders that integrates the virtual reality experience with evidence-based cognitive behavioral techniques.
Enhancing Exposure Treatment with Virtual Reality
As discussed in previous posts, Exposure Therapy is an effective form of treatment for anxiety disorders. By offering the opportunity for individuals to develop new learning about their fears, exposure therapy can effectively reduce anxiety in a way that can be maintained over time. Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles in exposure treatment is getting people to face the very things that causes them so much distress. Imagine, for example, asking someone who is terrified of snakes to walk into a room full of snakes. Alternatively, imagine asking someone who experiences severe distress in social situations to go to a crowded grocery store and interact with other patrons. It sounds terrifying, right? In fact, avoidance of facing ones fears is the most commonly encountered obstacles to effective exposure therapy treatment. When facing feared stimuli “in vivo” (or in real life) may be too challenging for some, virtual reality exposures offers an alternative means of confronting feared situations that may be more manageable for some.
Potential Benefits of VRET
VRET has several potential benefits for enhancing exposure treatment. These benefits include:
- Making it easier for some to face their fears vs. facing them in real life
- Offering a potentially less expensive option for facing some types of fears (e.g., paying for a flight for fear of flying)
- Making it easier to create feared situations of not easily accessible stimuli (e.g., exposure to war-related scenarios for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)
- Increasing the therapist and patient’s control over the exposure environment making it easier to create an ideal exposure situation
Promising Research Outcomes for VRET
Although VRET has only been utilized since the 1990’s, research outcomes thus far have been promising. In a review of existing research of the use of virtual reality in exposure treatment (including over 20 different studies), David Opris and colleagues found that VRET is just as effective as traditional cognitive-behavioral treatments utilizing exposure. This outcome, coupled with the potential benefits described above suggests that VRET may be a viable treatment alternative to traditional exposure therapies. Furthermore, given that virtual reality technologies are becoming more affordable, such treatments may be increasingly accessible in the coming years.
Anna L. Lock, Psy.D, Director of Training | Behavioral Associates Los Angeles
Behavioral Associates Los Angeles is a group of cognitive-behavioral therapists specializing in the treatment of anxiety and mood disorders. To find out more, contact us by phone at 310-205-0523 or by email at email@example.com.
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David Richard and Dean Lauterbach (2007). Handbook of Exposure Therapies.
Virtual reality in anxiety disorders: the past and the future. Gorini, A. and Riva, G. (2008) Expert Reviews Neurotherapeutics 8(2). 215-233.
Virtual reality exposure therapy in anxiety disorder: A quantitive meta-analysis. Opris, D., Pintea, S., Garcia-Palacios, A., Botella, C., Szamoskozi, S., and David, D. Depression and Anxiety 29: 85-93 (2012).