Rapidly advancing technology offers psychological service professionals an expanding toolkit to aid in their support of clients. At Insight Psychological, psychologists supporting clients who struggle with anxiety or phobias can now utilize the power of virtual reality technology as part of their treatment plan. Considering the novelty of this therapeutic practice, some people may be skeptical of its usefulness compared to the more conventional exposure therapy. However, this practical tool can help dramatically reduce anxiety and phobia symptoms in a psychologically safe environment for the client. In this article, we will discuss three major benefits of receiving virtual reality-assisted therapy.
What is Virtual Reality-Assisted Therapy?
Virtual reality-assisted therapy (VRAT) is a computer-based system that allows a user to experience a sense of presence in a computer-generated or video presented three-dimensional environment. This form of therapy utilizes the immersive experience that virtual reality (VR) technology provides to support individuals who experience anxiety related to common fears or phobias.
Why is Virtual Reality-Assisted Therapy beneficial?
It creates a simulation of an anxiety-invoking environment that may not be easy to replicate in real life.
In many cases, the anxiety-triggering environment identified by a client is not easily replicated by a psychologist in a therapeutic setting. Frequently psychologists rely on their client’s ability to imagine the feared environment to begin working through the emotions that the environment provokes. Virtual reality technology overcomes challenges associated with imaginal exposure therapy, including a patient’s inability to imagine the environment, the imagined environment being too frightening, and the psychologists’ lack of visual reference and control over the environment 1. Virtual reality-assisted therapy also defeats the need for psychologists and clients to visit a feared environment in-person, which is usually expensive and challenging to coordinate 1. With virtual reality-assisted therapy, the psychologist selects a virtual environment and personalizes it for the client to ensure the image is not too scary but still provokes emotions the client wishes to overcome 1.
It allows psychologists to increase exposure to anxiety-provoking events gradually.
As previously mentioned, in traditional exposure therapy, psychologists do not have high levels of control over how much anxiety-inducing exposure the client receives. In virtual reality therapy, psychologists guide clients through a personalized virtual fear environment, supporting them along the way. As clients become better equipped to cope with feelings that arise from the initial virtual reality environment they are presented with, the psychologist can add more fear elements to assist further in the therapeutic process 1. By using this incremental process, the psychologist is better equipped to help the client overcome anxiety and fear without overwhelming them with an overly triggering environment.
The exposure may be stopped at any time at the discretion of the psychologist or client.
Unlike when a client is exposed to an anxiety-inducing in-person or imaginary environment, the psychologist or client may stop the virtual reality exposure event at any time by simply taking off the virtual reality headset. This feature of VRAT serves as a safeguard against clients becoming too overwhelmed to the point that they wish to terminate the therapeutic process altogether.
Overall, virtual reality-assisted therapy is a highly effective therapeutic modality that offers psychological safety to clients and high levels of environmental control for psychologists to optimize the therapeutic process.
- Boeldt, D., McMahon, E., McFaul, M., & Greenleaf, W. (2019). Using Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy to Enhance Treatment of Anxiety Disorders: Identifying Areas of Clinical Adoption and Potential Obstacles. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 10, 773–773. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00773