Virtual reality therapy for mood enhancement

What is virtual reality?

Virtual reality, as its name suggests, describes a version of reality that is ingrained in our digital world. In other words, it’s a version of reality that is created in virtual through computer programs that is then presented to our senses on a different platform. This however, does not mean that the virtual is only restricted to creative interpretations of our physical world. Despite the freedom one has with a computer-generated environment, the technology involved in virtual reality is constantly pushing the boundaries of fusing realism between the physical and the virtual; so much so that the virtual can be perceived as the real.

As of now, the use of virtual reality has transcended from its previous constraints of the entertainment industry. Due to its immersive properties, virtual reality is gradually gaining popularity as an alternative treatment platform for various psychological disorders such as anxiety disorders, mood disorders and eating disorders. Virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) works the same way as in vivo exposure therapy, by helping clients overcome their fear through simulating the feared stimuli. One of its key advantages over in vivo exposure therapy is that because it is a computer simulation, this allows the therapist to have a more precise control of the environment to match with the client’s level of fear.

What does virtual reality look like?

Depending on the extensiveness of the setup (and subsequently the level of immersion and realism it can result in), virtual reality can be implemented with just a headset, cameras and a smartphone or a computer, or with extra tools such as omni-directional treadmills and special gloves.

When it comes to simulating a convincing real world, it is important to take in the considerations of other sensory information (e.g., sound, vestibular information, movement, field of view) that informs us about our physical world. Visual, though extremely important, isn’t everything. Imagine being placed in a simulation where you’re walking down a street. However, that is all. You do not feel or hear anything. With no other sensory information available but visual – would you be convinced that this is real? The inclusion of other sensory information highlights the importance of balance of sensory input in virtual reality. If this isn’t properly executed, and when what you’re seeing does not correspond to the sensory information in your vestibular system in the ears, this could easily lead to problems such as motion sickness.

In psychotherapy, virtual reality usually takes form in the simplest way – with only a headset. This can be further coupled with biofeedback mechanisms such as sensors, to monitor the client’s heart rate variability or electrodermal activity. It may also involve a computer display for the therapist to record any physiological activity and to manipulate the environment.

 

How can virtual reality help treat psychological disorders?

The efficacy of virtual reality as a platform in conducting psychological assessments and delivering in vivo psychological therapy for the treatment of an array of psychological disorders is currently being investigated extensively. And as far as the latest research suggests – the future of virtual reality and psychotherapy seems promising.

Psychological assessment in virtual reality

The unique immersive and malleable property of virtual reality meant that virtual reality can be a suitable environment for psychological assessment. For example, in order to be diagnosed with a phobia, fear reactions must be demonstrated both verbally and physiologically when exposed to the feared stimuli. Simulations of feared stimuli can be achieved in virtual and client’s physiological responses can be recorded and examined. It has been shown that virtual reality’s realism is strong enough to elicit physiological fear reactions such as an increase in heart rate and startle responses that matches verbal measures.

In addition to anxiety-related disorder, virtual reality is also a useful tool in assessing for symptoms in a variety of psychological disorders. This include distorted body image and reaction to food cues related to eating disorders, hyperactivity in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), drug craving behaviours in addicts, and other memory functions and executive dysfunction. Various assessment scales have since been developed and are being tested for its validity. E.g., the Body Image Virtual Reality Scale (BIVRS), Virtual Reality Cognitive Performance Assessment Test (VRCPAT), Virtual Reality-Nicotine Cue Reactivity Assessment System (VR-NCRAS), etc.

 

Exposure therapy in virtual reality

It has been well documented that using virtual reality as a substitute for in vivo therapy in the simulation of feared stimuli is extremely effective in the treatment of anxiety disorders. When compared against various psychological placebo and waitlists, virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) has shown to be superior in reducing short- and long-term anxiety symptoms. These include:

 

  • Generalised anxiety disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Specific phobias (e.g., height, flying, spider, driving, etc)
  • Fear of public speaking
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Social phobia

Moreover, when compared to traditional cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or exposure therapy (ET), VRET has proven itself to be just as effective as in vivo therapies in treating anxiety disorders. There are many advantages when it comes to choosing to conduct exposure therapy in the virtual. Not only that virtual reality makes a more cost-effective substitute, a computer-generated simulation also provides the therapist with better control and monitoring of the environment and changes can be made whenever deemed fit.

 

Virtual Reality and Depression

Exposure therapy isn’t the only thing that can be done in virtual reality. In 2016, a group of researchers wanted to investigate the use of virtual bodies to encourage self-compassion in people with depression; as people suffering from depression often engage in self-damaging behaviours like self-criticism. In this study, a virtual body was simulated for the participant where they practiced expressing compassion. They were then switched to a different virtual body and experienced receiving compassion from their original body. It was found that the mere act of self-identification with virtual bodies and a shift in perspective resulted in significant reductions in depressive symptoms and self-criticism, and an increase in self-compassion.

Benefits of virtual reality

Virtual reality has proven itself to be an extremely versatile tool with multiple benefits based on its different uses. These include:

  • Making learning processes more engaging and exciting
  • Allowing learners to explore an environment in a self-guided manner
  • Providing a safe and interactive environment for learning to occur
  • The ability to interact makes learning more memorable
  • Providing a safe environment to explore and confront fearful and stressful situations
  • Providing realistic scenarios for training purposes
  • Learning occurred in the virtual environment has translative effects into the real physical world
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