Virtual Reality Therapy For Anxiety

virtual reality therapy for anxiety
A Japanese dojo scene from Cubicle Ninja’s Guided Meditation VR

How virtual reality therapy is being used to treat anxiety

An estimated 40 million Americans suffer from some form of anxiety. While anxiety is a normal part of life and part of a biological system designed to keep us safe in dangerous situations, this system can become over-activated and cause problems. From a general feeling of distress in every day life, to disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder and panic attacks, anxiety can severely impact a person’s life. Anxiety can be treated with medication and therapy, but virtual reality can offer other means of treatment to help those patients who might need something different. This page explains how virtual reality therapy for anxiety is proving to be an effective tool for the treatment of various forms of anxiety.

What is virtual reality therapy?

Virtual Reality Therapy (VRT) is the use of virtual reality (VR) technology in the treatment of pain management, as well as issues like anxiety and depression. By using VR, users are dropped into a virtual environment and fully engrossed in the experience. Most VR experiences involved a head-mounted display, headphones for sound or music, often with noise-cancelling properties, a rumble pad, and joystick or other navigational tool to move through the virtual landscape. Head-tracking systems help to surround the user in the virtual world and make the experience truly immersive. By including stimuli that engage the visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory systems, VR is distinctly different from watching movies or TV, or even playing 2D games whether handheld or on a console. While it was originally developed for entertainment, new applications for virtual reality are being discovered all the time.

Virtual reality therapy for generalized anxiety disorder

There are many forms that anxiety takes; some relate to a specific object or situation, while others are less defined. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is an overarching feeling of unease and worry that doesn’t have a specific cause. Some sufferers have mild cases where they are able to go about their daily lives, but others can be heavily restricted by their symptoms. Anxiety is very treatable with medication, breathing exercises, and therapy, but not everyone can afford or has time for all these options.

Virtual reality can give anxiety sufferers the time and space to practice breathing exercises and meditation. The company Cubicle Ninjas has created a VR environment to help users focus and relax to help control their feelings of unease. With a guided meditation app, users are able to choose locations such as a canyon, forest, beach, or Japanese dojo. Using an Oculus Rift headset, headphones, and a controller, the user can be transported to a beach environment complete with sounds of the waves and relaxing palm tree scenery. While using the system, a voice guides you through a mediation session and helps you through breathing exercises. The rhythm of the waves and wind help to provide feedback and give the user something to focus on. Meditation can be difficult, as those starting out can feel a little lost in what to do or how to focus. Systems like this can help with concentration, and being transported to another place can help you focus on relaxation instead of your to-do list.

In a study done to test the efficacy of VR in treating GAD, researchers took 21 participants and split them into three groups. The first group was given VRT with the use of biofeedback sensors, and were also given a mobile phone with a preprogrammed environment to practice their relaxation techniques at home. The second group was also given VRT and mobile phones but without biofeedback, and the third group was given no VRT. The researchers assessed the participants’ level of anxiety before and after treatment using inventories and questionnaires. They found that the group with the most significant reduction in feelings of anxiety was the first group that received VRT with biofeedback. The second group that received VRT without biofeedback also saw decreases in anxiety, however the effect was smaller. The researchers felt that the biofeedback was a significant factor in reducing participants’ stress, and that the mobile application was also helpful to solidify the relaxation techniques at home.

Virtual reality therapy for social anxiety

For some, the thought of going to a crowded party or giving a speech can be terrifying. This feeling of fear can have a profound effect on a person’s social life and can hold them back from living their life fully. For social anxiety, the preferred method of treatment is typically exposure therapy: introducing the person to their fear in small doses to lessen their fear response over time. But for those with social anxiety, the best that therapists are usually able to do is have the patient imagine they are in a crowded room or an auditorium full of people. There is also the option of having the patient actually give a speech in a room full of people, but these programs tend to have a very high drop-out rate. This is where VRT steps in to offer another option.

From the safety of the therapist’s office, a patient can use VR in order to gradually confront their fear without having to speak in front of real people. It’s also more effective than asking a patient to simply visualize a stress provoking scenario, especially for those patients with autism, for example, that have a difficult time imagining the situation. The virtual environment can include an audience that the therapist controls so that the patient can receive cheers and applause as feedback to boost their confidence and reduce anxiety. Virtual reality can provide a happy medium for those looking for more than imagining a scenario themselves but not actually speaking in front of people.

Summary

Traditional forms of therapy for generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety such as medication and talk therapy can be useful, but VRT can be used as an effective alternative or augmentation to these techniques. Those with social anxiety can face their fears more gradually, and people suffering from generalized anxiety can learn relaxation techniques or simply have a place to escape to when they need it. Virtual reality therapy for anxiety is an effective tool that is being used more and more commonly to help people manage their anxiety and improve their life.

Treatment

Please visit our Find A Therapist page for information on treatment centres offering virtual reality therapy for anxiety.