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What is Virtual Reality Therapy?

Source from VeryWellMind

Virtual Reality Therapy (VRT) involves the use of a virtual world for psychological therapy and rehabilitation purposes. The therapy is carried out on a virtual reality (VR) headset with a programmed setting which allows individuals to navigate through a variety of digital activities and virtual environments.

Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET) is a type of VRT that presents fearful or dangerous stimuli in small increments to help an individual learn the appropriate response. This helps the individual confront and process difficult situations by being placed in a digital environment. According to Forbes, an example of this is placing an individual who is afraid of heights in a 3-D environment that displays a glass elevator, allowing them to slowly conquer their fear. VRET also helps individuals to process their post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and help victims of violence.

Source from ScienceNews

Alternative types of VRT include engaging with a therapist through an avatar in a digital setting. Donna Davis, Ph.D., who leads the Oregon Reality Lab in Portland, Oregon, specialises in VRT and has collaborated with a VR group for individuals diagnosed with Parkinson's disease on the platform called Second Life. In this virtual realm, participants have the ability to create a three-dimensional avatar within an alternate universe. This community has regularly convened for over a decade, offering a safe space for individuals to share their experiences without disclosing their real identities.

What does Virtual Reality Therapy treat?

Aside from the mentioned, VRT can also be used to treat a variety of conditions.

  1. Anxiety Disorders: VRT can help individuals with anxiety disorders, such as specific phobias, social anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), by exposing them to virtual environments that simulate the situations or triggers they fear. This exposure allows for gradual desensitisation and the development of coping strategies. For example, individuals with social anxiety can be placed in a digital social setting (e.g. crowded school hallway) to develop coping strategies and appropriate social skills.

  2. Eating disorders: VRT has the potential to modify body image and gradually alleviate negative cognitive patterns associated with eating disorders and body dysmorphia. This exposure prompts them to develop specific strategies for either avoiding or managing such situations, thereby strengthening their emotional and behavioural responses.

  3. Rehabilitation and Physical Therapy: VRT is utilised in physical rehabilitation to enhance motor skills, balance, and coordination. Virtual reality environments can simulate real-life scenarios, allowing patients to practise movements, exercises, and tasks in a safe and controlled setting.

  4. Cognitive Rehabilitation: VRT can be employed in cognitive rehabilitation programs for individuals with cognitive impairments or brain injuries. Virtual reality tasks and simulations can improve attention, memory, problem-solving, and other cognitive functions.

  5. Stress Reduction and Relaxation: Virtual reality experiences designed for relaxation purposes can help individuals manage stress, promote relaxation, and improve overall well-being. These experiences often involve serene and calming virtual environments.

Benefits of Virtual Reality Therapy

Though VR should not be seen as an answer but rather as a tool to treat mental health conditions, it does offer several advantages.

  1. Ecological validity: The environments within the virtual space are realistic enough for individuals to believe they are in the situation.

  2. Full autonomy over the environment: An individual can simply take the headset off if the environment gets too overwhelming.

  3. Feasibility: VR can be the sole viable option when it comes to arranging exposure therapy for challenging scenarios that are otherwise difficult to replicate. These scenarios include situations like flying in a plane in severe weather conditions, confronting large audiences, and navigating hazardous environments. Furthermore, VRT is more acceptable than reconstructing a real environment for patients who have been through trauma.

Limitations and Risks

As VRT is still evolving, there are also drawbacks to ​​this new technology. Firstly, confidentiality and privacy are crucial in VRT, as personal and sensitive information may be shared during therapy sessions. It is important to ensure secure data management and privacy protection to maintain patient confidentiality and trust.

According to Dr. Davis, in the case of VRET, where realistic situations are simulated, it is essential to have a well-trained therapist to guide the individual. This is crucial because overly intense simulations could potentially retraumatise individuals if they do not have the support and guidance of a skilled therapist. Hence, standardised protocols, guidelines and practices are needed for the therapy to be effective and safe for all individuals.

The Future of Virtual Reality Therapy

As technology continues to evolve, the future of VRT holds significant potential for advancements and expanded applications. VR hardware and software will become more advanced, affordable, and accessible. Higher-resolution displays, improved tracking systems, and more realistic haptic feedback will enhance the immersive experience, making VRT even more effective.

While VRT has already shown efficacy in various fields, such as anxiety disorders and phobias, its applications may expand to treat other conditions, including depression, addiction, autism spectrum disorders, and pain management.

Continued research and clinical trials will help identify new areas where VRT can provide significant benefits.

Additionally, VRT can be utilised for long-term follow-up and relapse prevention. By creating virtual environments that simulate real-world challenges and triggers, individuals can practise coping strategies, reinforce skills learned during therapy, and prevent relapse or recurrence of symptoms.

As the field of VRT continues to advance, it is crucial to conduct further research, establish standardised protocols, ensure ethical guidelines, and train therapists to effectively and responsibly utilise this powerful therapeutic tool.

Start discovering more about VR, the Metaverse and Web 3.0 at SMU Academy x TechFin’s Advanced Certificate in Web 3.0 Module 3: Leveraging the Power of Web 3.0.


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