Technology is often criticized for disconnecting us from reality. It immerses us in a screen, moves our attention away from the world around us and, ultimately, from ourselves. But what if technology could enhance our connection with reality? What if, instead of separating us from the real world, technology could help us establish a healthier relationship with it? That is precisely what Virtual Reality therapy embodies.
Virtual Reality is a set of computer technologies that engage the users in a 3D environment and transports them to an interactive world. In the mid-90s, VR started to be applied in behavioural therapy for the treatment of specific phobias (such as agoraphobia, claustrophobia, fear of flying, fear of public speaking), anxiety disorders (panic disorder, social anxiety, PTSD, OCD), chronic substance abuse, psychosis, among other mental health conditions. VR treatment confronts the patients with a specific fear, trauma, addiction, or other anxious circumstances, and gradually trains their brains to learn how to cope and incite healthy responses.
VR therapy presents significant advantages over other exposure therapies, such as in vivo exposure, in which the patients directly face their fears or phobias in real life; and imaginal exposure, which consists in the patient recalling the feared object, event, or activity through imagination. Unlike the formers, VR therapy provides stimuli that do not overwhelm those who are unprepared to face their phobias in vivo; and it is a far more effective (and realistic) method for individuals whose imagination is weak or even too daunting. Besides, in VR therapy, therapists have total control of the environment (they choose and create its content), see what the patient is seeing, and guide the patient through the virtual reality, keeping score of the levels of anxiety and addressing them when necessary. Patients are taught to control their breathing, induce body relaxation, calm their heart rate, and manage negative thoughts. And all of this is performed in a monitored and measured exposure to the feared situation. In other words, VR therapy brings the patient and the therapist together in an interactive world they can command and transform as a team.
Even more surprising is how VR therapy has been used to enhance empathy and self-compassion. Through VR exposure, people can understand their loved ones suffering from psychosis, schizophrenia, or even autism, by experiencing it virtually themselves. It is a powerful means to increase empathy in unprecedented ways. Recent studies have also shown how VR can improve self-compassion in people dealing with depression and burdened with heavy doses of self-criticism and self-hatred. As results have demonstrated, by transporting these people to a reality where their adult avatar comforts their child avatar, VR exposure can substantially boost their self-compassion. To put it bluntly, VR is an extraordinary means to put you in someone else’s shoes, even if those shoes belong to you.
In essence, VR therapy is more than a method of studying human behaviour. It represents the second chance people deserve to confront what once defeated them and regain the strength to unstick their behaviour and overcome profound fears. Now that the cost of VR equipment is decreasing, it is becoming more accessible for clinics to purchase and use it in their sessions. Expanding training in VR exposure therapy might be a valuable solution to a more effective response to the current global mental health crisis that has been depriving people of their own power.