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Virtually Treating Mental Health

There is a new form of therapy taking hold in the field of mental health. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is well known for affecting many military personnel who have been to the battlefield. But this disorder can also happen to anyone who has been subjected to high levels of anxiety or stress. Traditional treatments have, up until now, been psychotherapy or drug-based. Drugs particularly may mask the symptoms but perhaps never really provide a cure, and some can have detrimental side effects. However, with the advent of accessible immersive virtual reality, things have changed. A new form of therapy called VRET or Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy is being tried. The theory behind VRET is that by exposing the person to circumstances that approximate the situation that caused them stress, they will gradually lose their fear of it and learn to confront it. The goal is to be able to start to live a normal life without avoiding things or places that remind the person of their fear. With soldiers this would mean putting them back into a scenario containing stuff, like helicopters, encountered in combat but this time in virtual reality. The technology immerses them in that scene and to some degree makes them part of it. The good thing is that the risks of a real combat scenario are no longer present and they can come out of it whenever they want by taking off the headset. Trials and studies have indicated good results so far and a reduction in PTSD symptoms for those who have undergone VRET.

The success of such a program means that it may also be extended to other types of anxiety-related disorders and problems. For example, if you have a fear of open spaces, heights, flying, spiders, social situations, then these can all be recreated in VR for you to safely experience them. Actual experiments with arachnophobia sufferers gradually introduce virtual spiders which come closer and closer as the tolerance to them improves. It has worked to such an extent for some that they can then allow themselves more proximity to an actual spider. Obviously, that is the point. It could be that many problems could simply be treated by a few sessions in VR. Choose the module you want and away you go. In the future, there may even be kits, such as ‘Cure your Fear of People’ or ‘Tackle your Fear of Tall Buildings’.

So, why does it work? The answer lies in the fact that once in an immersive virtual environment, you feel as if you are actually there. You experience it as if it was real and you feel part of it. There has been much research into the psychology of virtual environments, particularly by a special unit at Stanford University. Their studies have shown that a person can be affected by situations in VR not only during it but even afterwards. For example, a person whose avatar is made taller inside the VR space gains more confidence in themselves as a result. Conversely, if they were made shorter then they lose confidence. Changing a person’s skin colour in VR can cause them to think differently about racial issues. Another experiment where participants were made to chop down virtual trees in a virtual rain forest made them more environmentally aware. I could give you numerous other illustrations but you get the point. Immersive virtual environments are different and they can create real-world responses. And even physical reactions to heights and other situations.

The field of mental health is certainly an area where virtual reality is proving to be of benefit. However, it is also being put to effective use in other areas of medicine. Surgeons are being trained to perform operations using immersive technology without any risk to their patients. Mistakes can be made in VR until the trainee is perfect and before practicing the operation on a real-life human.

Rehabilitation is another field where VR is starting to make inroads. Patients who have suffered a stroke or similar can gain improvements in hand and arm movement through the use of immersive VR. The therapist can use special virtual environments that stimulate patients to move their limbs. Some real breakthroughs have been made in this way with people who have been paralysed in their legs. The simulation of walking in VR has actually produced small voluntary movements in their own legs. Progressive use of these types of tools could eventually result in major restoration of limb function, although much further research is required at this point.

Dementia, which is now a worldwide problem affecting over 50 million people, has also been a target for VR researchers. Virtual environments have been created which provide valuable distractions for dementia sufferers. Studies have shown a remarkable 70 percent stress reduction in such patients and less necessity to use drugs to control mood swings and other symptoms.

Also, the elderly who are perhaps immobile but who do not have such a disease can nevertheless be connected to their loved ones and friends through the magic of VR. This is because community events can be staged without the participants ever leaving their chairs. This represents quite a benefit to older people who are unable to get around.

Overall virtual reality is gradually entering our lives, even though we may be unaware of it. The things described above that seem out of the ordinary now will one day surely be commonplace. Perhaps instead of visiting a therapist, you will simply be able to download a program to help with your anxiety or deal with your problems. Perhaps this may not fill everyone with delightful anticipation. For some, it simply will represent our increasing connection to computers and loss of real human interaction. But I guess the real answer is that everything has a balance, and if we keep it in perspective then it will probably be OK. Plus, there is always the old adage: don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. For those people in real need, however, these advances could be a benefit, or even in some cases a real lifesaver.

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