Why VR technology is so effective in exposure therapy

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The term ‘virtual reality’ (VR) is mostly associated with playing games in virtual worlds, but VR technology has many applications in a wide range of fields including medicine. Within medicine the technology has been in used to train doctors, nurses and surgeons, in treatment for PTSD, pain management, phantom limb pain, social training for people with autism, new opportunities for people with disabilities and more.The use of VR in a clinical setting for exposure therapy is especially effective. Exposure therapy is used in the treatment of fears, anxieties, phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Patients are helped to overcome their fear or distress by being exposed to it in a safe environment. With VR, the environment is safe, but also more real in simulating the traumatic situation, or feared object, realistically.

With the help of immersive VR psychologists can help patients literally face their fears and overcome them. Why is virtual reality so effective in helping soldiers overcome PTSD or a businessman overcome his fear of flying? There seems to be at least three factors at play:

  1. In a traditional clinical setting the situation or object is talked about, not experienced. With VR the patient is confronted directly, as if in the real world, with that which he or she fears most. They are put in a simulation that closely resembles the situation that caused (PTSD) or causes (phobias) the trauma. In the case of a fear of flying, the patient experiences actual flying.
  2. It is typical for a person who struggles with a phobia, to avoid situations that would expose them to their fear. “Oh, I can never visit my son in Australia! It’s simply impossible for me. I will never, ever get onto a plane.” (And not see my son for years). This kind of life-impoverishing belief is very effectively tackled with therapy that includes VR experiences. Experiencing flight with other passengers, feeling lift off, looking out the window and eventually even experiencing some turbulence, all under safe conditions with direct audial contact with the therapist the fear gradually disappears. In the case of PTSD related to trauma experienced during war, patients typically can’t talk about the experience and often fail to recall events complicating therapy efforts. This natural tendency to avoid reminders of the trauma, is overcome with virtual environments that simulate the trauma situation. The familiar situation, complete with associates sounds and smells, trigger buried memories and patients are able to talk through their experiences, and so process difficult emotional memories.
  3. Using VR in the clinical setting exposes the therapist to the patient’s world in a very direct way. The therapist sits with the patient through the bombs that go off, the screams, the blood and the death. This creates real empathy which affects the overall effectiveness of exposure therapy.

There is also an additional factor. In the case of the younger generation, technology like VR is something they are accustomed to and attracted to, especially those who are avid gamers. They are therefore more willing to try exposure therapy combined with VR as an option to help them with a difficulty.