Virtual reality has the potential to be far more than fun and games. It can be a powerful therapy to treat phobias and anxiety disorders.
This week we’re joined with a double whammy of experts: Dr. Robert Reiner, Executive Director and founder of Behavioral Associates, and Dr. Eva Zysk, Psychology Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University.
Virtual Reality vs Augmented Reality
It seems these two terms are often used interchangeably, but they’re actually different. Augmented reality involves looking at the world through a screen. Through the lens of that screen, you’re looking at the real world with certain virtual elements superimposed.
Virtual reality, on the other hand, is a complete reconstruction of reality. It’s immersive. You’re entirely cut off from the real world and in a new, virtual world.
Of course, as Dr. Reiner points out, in a sense, all reality is virtual reality. Our reality is just the way our brain interprets light bouncing off objects in the physical world.
Using Virtual Reality to Treat Anxiety
Social Anxiety Disorder, the fear of being negatively judged by other people, is a very hard thing to treat. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been fairly successful as a treatment, but it has one major limitation.
CBT involves working with a therapist to modify thoughts and beliefs. But it also requires repeated, increasing exposure. So a patient might start by imagining being judged by a crowd, before repeated speaking in public to lessen the anxiety response. The anxiety will reduce over time, since our bodies can’t sustain very high levels of anxiety for long.
Here’s the rub, though: exposure therapy for CBT requires the participation of other people. But you can’t guarantee that the unwitting participants won’t actually negatively judge a patient, confirming their original fear and negativing the positive effects of exposure.
Enter virtual reality, which can be very very useful here. Instead of having a patient speak in front of a group of actual humans, they can do so virtually. We can stimulate a social environment, but control the other people’s responses.
That way a positive experience is guaranteed, and the patient’s treatment doesn’t suffer a setback.
Psst: Interested in more on virtual reality therapies? Check out episode 87!