Virtual reality therapy is being used for the treatment of anxiety disorders, fears, phobias and PTSD. In this episode, we look at the ways virtual reality is being used in the clinical setting.
Today's show focuses on the advancements in VR (Virtual Reality) technology to help people improve focus, increase concentration and to improve wellness.
Virtual Reality Therapy is being used to treat people who suffer from anxiety, phobias and many other mental health challenges. I’m even going to share my own experiences using this technology to help bring about increased calmness and relaxation. Stick around folks, there’s a lot of great information in this episode.
Just a quick disclaimer before I get started. This podcast is not a replacement for mental health counseling or medical care, and I’m not your personal therapist. Are you ready? Let’s jump right in.
Virtual Reality- you’ve probably heard a lot about it over the last several years and been curious what it’s all about. I know for me, before I tried it out for myself, I thought it was just used by kids for video games. Boy was I wrong, Virtual Reality or VR is being used these days for treating a variety of mental health issues. I mean it’s absolutely amazing because psychologists and researchers are using this incredible technology for everything from PTSD, to anxiety disorders and even specific phobias. Ill talk more about that in a moment.
You might be wondering, what is virtual reality anyway? Well, it’s an artificial environment where you put on a head set an are digitally immersed into the scene you are viewing. When I say immersed, I mean you can see 360 degrees around you to the point where it’s almost as if you are actually there in real life. There have been moments when I’m in virtual reality where I have to take off the headset to remind myself that I’m in a simulation.
You can also explore animated scenes which allow you to use a controller to walk around the virtual environment in such a way that it looks and feels like it’s real life. I can tell you that at least for me, using virtual reality is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.
Because virtual reality also stimulates your hearing and vision- two of your five senses. The experience is even more lifelike making it easy to suspend belief that you’re using technology and accept what you’re seeing as a real environment. Now VR isn’t anything new. In fact, it was being used by the US military and NASA back in the 90s to train fighter pilots and astronauts with life like scenarios. But nowadays, the technology has advanced so much that you don’t even need a computer to enjoy the experience. It’s absolutely mind boggling how real these scenarios can be.
If you haven’t tried it, I’m going to do my very best to describe the experience and then I’ll get into some of the clinical ways it’s being used in the field of psychology. First, I want you to know there are many different VR brands and VR software programs out there. You can get the super expensive ones that cost thousands of dollars, all the way down to a basic set, which cost less than 50 bucks – and only require you put your cell phone inside.
For me personally, I’ve been using the Oculus Quest 2, which doesn’t require a computer and I think is really affordable for what you get. It’s as easy as putting on the head set and you’re ready to go. I’ll leave a link to the one I use in the show notes so you can check it out yourself.
I want to share how useful this technology is for someone who wants help with relaxing. In my private practice, I use a lot of guided imagery to help people distract their racing thoughts and focus on soothing images to help them with brining their thoughts into the present moment. But for a lot of my own patients, doing visualization exercises are difficult. For some people, visualizing images or scenes can be really challenging. Then there are others who find it hard to concentrate because their dealing with anxiety and their minds are too busy to remain focused.
That’s where VR seems to be so powerful. The person can choose the world they want to visit and be completely immersed in it by simply putting on the headset. For example, I’m a person who really finds being at the beach to be a quiet and spiritually restorative experience. Since I live in Chicago, where there is no ocean, I like to use my VR set to instantly transport myself to a calming tropical island where I can take in he scenes and meditate. When I’m visiting this tropical island in the virtual world, it’s almost as if I’m really there.
That’s because when I’m there – I can see blue skies as far as the eye can see or watch the ocean waves gently roll in listen to the water roll up to the beach. And since I can look around me in 360 degrees, up, down and even behind me, I feel totally immersed in the experience. In VR, both your visual and hearing senses are stimulated, making it as close as possible to the real thing without actually being there in real life. Some of the VR meditation scenes, like the one I use called TRIPP, come with a coach who guides you thru mindfulness breathing exercises. These days, with a basic VR head set, you can go on to You Tube – pull up a VR nature scene and watch visit wherever you want in 360 degrees.
This technology is so phenomenal because it allows me to mentally escape the cold, grey winters of Chicago and meditate at virtually any place I choose in the world.
You might be wondering how virtual reality is being used to help with mental health or anxiety disorders. Well, I did some research on the subject and discovered some fascinating information. In an article published on Psychology Today titled, New Research Finds Virtual Reality Can Help Treat Anxiety by Dr. Marilyn Wei. She cites some research from JMIR mental health that seems to show VR can be used to enhance Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and treat anxiety and depression.
I think it’s really key that she points out VR therapy is being used with CBT because the therapist has the ability to help a person discuss and work through some of the images the patient is seeing in the VR world. So let’s say you have a person with a fear of planes. The therapist might have the person look at a plane in virtual reality and talk with them about what they are experiencing. In my opinion, this is game changing technology.
Here are just a few areas where it’s being used.
One of the areas Virtual Reality is being used is for people who struggle with social anxiety. In therapy, we have a technique called exposure therapy. This is where you introduce the person to their fears through real or imagined simulations. For example, there is imaginative exposure, where the person imagines the fear and then slowly works their way up to a real-life situation until hopefully the fear is distinguished.
Another type of exposure therapy is called In Vivo. In Vivo means that you actually expose the person to their fear in real life. So for someone with social anxiety, the therapist might instruct the person to go to stand in line at a grocery store and interact with the store clerk while purchasing some items. While In Vivo therapy can be very effective, it’s not always appropriate for everyone. For someone who is dealing with severe social anxiety, throwing them right into the fire may re-traumatize them. The person might also become so panicked about following thru with the directions, in this case visiting a grocery store, that they never actually do it.
With VR exposure therapy, the therapist and the patient have much more control over the situation.
Let’s say you have a person who really wants to get out there and start socializing more but never does because they become too anxious at public events or small gatherings. With the therapist’s guidance, the individual can choose a social scene and slowly be exposed to interacting with others. Now I’m not going to say that virtual reality cures them of their social anxiety, but I do think it has the potential to reduce their anxiety when they interact with people in real life.
To give you an idea of how realistic this is, I visited VR simulated world to see what it was like. It’s called VR Chat that is available on the Oculus quest 2 headset. Since I like things more on the mature side, I decided to choose a jazz lounge. I must tell you that the experience for me was very, very real. In this virtual reality lounge, I was able to walk into the bar and start chatting with other people in real time. Yea, that’s right, I was able to walk around in all directions just like I would in real life. It was crazy because I was talking with people from all over the country who stopped by this lounge just to mingle with others. These weren’t computer programs I was talking with. These were other people wearing VR headsets that could chat with me in real time. The experience is so realistic, that I actually forgot I was wearing a headset because the 3D animation allows you to walk around the environment just like you would at a real-life lounge. The great thing is that if I’m uncomfortable talking to someone, or their annoying me, I can simply walk away from the conversation or take off the headset.
I can totally see how VR can be used with CBT to help people improve their distress tolerance in social situations. For a person who lives alone, or spends a lot of time isolated, I think there is real promise that this technology can help them improve their social anxiety symptoms.
I was listening to Mind Trick Radio and he had on a guest named Dr. Scott Rizzo, who is the director for Medical Virtual Reality at the Institute for Creative Technologies. Listening to Dr. Rizzo, who is a true pioneer in VR therapy was fascinating because they talked about the ways researchers are combining cognitive behavioral therapy with VR to treat everything from PTSD to various anxiety disorders.
To give you an idea how fast this technology is taking off, there are companies out there who are already training therapists to use Virtual Reality in combination with CBT to help in the clinical setting. I came across a company called PSIOUS (SIAS) VR. PSOUS offers software and training to clinicians to help their clients with a variety of challenges.
In the area of Alcohol addiction, they create can create a scenario where the person may be sitting at a virtual bar and experience triggers like hearing a bottle open or having a friend offer them a drink. Now by no means do I think this can be a cure for alcohol addiction, but I can see how this would be a very powerful tool for a trained clinician to help their patient get better control over their impulses.
Another interesting area they are using Virtual Reality is for Driving Anxiety. The therapist would have the person put on the VR headset and enter a simulation where they get into a car and make their way to the highway. Since the person can see the speedometer in front of them and see traffic on all sides it can look and feel to some extent very realistic. Now they stress that a challenge like driving anxiety is used with techniques like psychoeducation and learning ways to relax while operating the car.
They are even doing research now to see if Virtual Reality can help kids who struggle with ADHD. In 2019, UC Davis Mind Institute started researching the subject by having kids between the ages of 8-12 be apart of the study. Their team created this virtual classroom where a kid find themselves sitting in a virtual classroom.
When they look around, they can see the instructor in front of them and other children on all sides. Occasionally, as they are focusing on the teacher, another student may try to get their attention by talking to them or the child might be distracted by certain sounds like a pencil dropping on the floor.
I sort of wish this kind of technology was around when I was a kid myself. Still, for me personally, I think my favorite way to use Virtual Reality is just for basic relaxation. I love being able to explore different parts of the world and get a taste for what it would be like if I were there in real life.
I think that the more affordable VR technology becomes, the greater this technology will be used in the clinical setting.
Well, that’s all I have for today’s show. I want to let you know how much I really appreciate that you took time out of your busy day to listen to this podcast. It would mean the world to me if you could subscribe to the show, and leave me a review on Apple Podcast. I guess the way the technology works is the more reviews this show has, the better it shows up for other people to find.
You can reach me directly by visiting the website at anxiety therapist podcast dot com. From there you can even follow the show on Facebook and Instagram. I hope you enjoyed this information on virtual reality therapy.