How VRT is being used to treat paranoia
Paranoia can be an isolating condition that has the power to ruin lives and break families apart. Virtual reality therapy for paranoia is a relatively new approach that is showing early promise for helping to treat those suffering from paranoid thoughts.
What is paranoia?
Paranoia presents as a symptom in many psychotic disorders as well as other mental illnesses. It involves thoughts of persecution, threat, or conspiracy with intense anxiety. These fears can become so ingrained that the sufferer can’t be convinced their thoughts aren’t true, becoming delusions.
People who suffer from paranoia have trouble trusting others, are extremely sensitive to criticism, are argumentative, constantly on edge, and often think that people are hiding things from them.
Most often paranoia is treated with medicine and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). When going through therapy, it is important for the patient to feel a sense of trust and collaboration with their therapist as feelings of anger, hostility, and the desire to withdraw can be strong.
This can be a long process, but the world of virtual reality may be able to help.
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.
Using virtual reality therapy for paranoia
Researchers at Oxford University have found that virtual reality therapy can be extremely effective in the treatment of paranoia. Their study was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry and funded by the Medical Research Council.
The study noted that people who suffer from paranoia often avoid social situations or reduce eye-contact as a defensive measure that they believe will help, but often only makes their fears worse. In order to find out if virtual reality could help with feelings of mistrust and anxiety, the researchers split a group of 30 participants into two and gave them different instructions on how to deal with a virtual reality environment designed to provoke anxiety.
The virtual environment involved a subway car or an elevator, which were programmed to gradually increase the number of human avatars (virtual persons) that populated the locations. By increasing the number of avatars, anxiety in patients typically increased and helped to immerse the user in the environment.
Both groups were told that by staying in the environment they could retrain their brains to understand that they were safe. The first group was then told to use their normal defensive behaviours in order to deal with their fear and anxiety.
The second group was instructed to go toe-to-toe with the human avatars they encountered to see that there was nothing to be afraid of. They were also told to drop their defences and maintain eye contact with the avatars for extended periods of time.
The first group saw a modest reduction in feelings of paranoia; 20% of participants in this group reported that they no longer experienced severe paranoia at the end of the session. The second group, who were told to drop their defences and take a more active role in confronting their fears, saw 50% of participants no longer having severe paranoia at the end of the session.
This is an extremely promising result, because it can be very difficult and time consuming for sufferers of paranoia to face their fears and work on coping with them better. One of the lead researchers of the study, Professor Freeman, said that, “It’s not easy work for patients, since lowering defences takes courage. But as they relearned that being around other people was safe we saw their paranoia begin to melt away. They were then able to go into real social situations and cope far better. This has the potential to be transformative.”
While there hasn’t yet been a follow up to check if the progress was maintained by the participants who no longer experienced severe paranoia, those in the second group were even able to visit shops after the experience and not feel overly stressed.
With the increasing availability of virtual reality therapy, it may even be possible for therapists to go to the homes of patients to give them this treatment, since it can be difficult for those with paranoia to leave the house.
How virtual reality therapy can help with other mental disorders
Paranoia can also be just one piece of the puzzle in other mental disorders. Virtual reality can also help those with mental illness such as schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorders, which include paranoid thoughts.
Researchers at University College London have found that by creating avatars to embody voices that schizophrenic patients are hearing in their heads, they can help them confront theses voices and take away the power they have over the patients.
Virtual reality therapy can help with many aspects of mental illness, from taking away the power of destructive voices in the mind of a patient with schizophrenia, to confronting paranoid thoughts that passersby on the streets are wishing a person harm. As technology becomes more advanced and more accessible, virtual reality therapy is becoming a very useful tool in the hands of doctors and psychotherapists.
Please visit our Find A Therapist page for information on treatment centres offering virtual reality therapy for paranoia.