Virtual Reality for Mental Health and Anxiety  

When most people think of virtual reality (VR), they probably think of a person wearing a big, bulky headset while navigating their way through a computer-generated video game.  

While VR is often associated with leisure and entertainment, increasing amounts of research shows it can have a positive impact on a person’s mental health and reduce their anxiety.  

More than 40 million American adults suffer from anxiety disorders and symptoms usually do not go away on their own. In fact, they tend to get worse over time if not treated. For some individuals suffering from anxiety and depression, virtual reality therapy can help improve their overall quality of life.  

What is VR?  

VR is an immersive, interactive, multi-sensory technology that makes the user feel as if they’re in another world. VR headsets are goggles that give the user a 360° view of a virtual environment, allowing them to look in every direction while sounds play from the headset.  

Virtual reality exposure therapy for anxiety and depression 

While it is not a fixture in addressing chronic pain management, VR has a proven track record of using cognitive behavioral therapy and other behavioral methods to distract people from physical pain.  

VR can decrease anxiety, unpleasantness, time spent thinking about pain and perceived time spent in a medical procedure. Specifically, VR has proven effective in decreasing pain and anxiety during burn care. 

As far back as the mid-1990s, studies have demonstrated virtual reality’s role in contributing to positive mental health outcomes, as well. Studies have shown that it can successfully ease anxiety disorders like agoraphobia, which is the fear of places and situations that might cause panic, helplessness, or embarrassment. 

Virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) is a specific method of virtual reality therapy sometimes recommended by licensed mental health professionals in which clients are placed in an artificial environment that mimics a real-life setting.  

VRET is designed to help you face your fears in a safe, no-stakes environment. You go into it knowing that the computer environment is not real, but your mind and body behaves as if it is. These learnings can then transfer to the real world.  

VRET is often used as an alternative to vivo exposure, which pits a person against their fears in real life. For example, someone with a fear of snakes may be instructed to handle a snake  

In VRET, if you have a fear of public speaking or of flying, the technology can simulate those experiences through your VR headset. So, you would be placed in a large auditorium full of people, or on an airplane, accompanied by all the sights, sounds and vibrations of those respective settings. 

 VRET has also been used to successfully treat these conditions:  

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) 
  • Panic disorders 
  • Phobias 
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 
  • Social anxiety disorder 

What to expect during VR therapy 

During a VRET session, you might sit in a dark room while wearing a VR headset. You become immersed in a virtual setting that triggers your traumas or fears.  

Before the simulation, your mental health professional might try to help you prepare for the session or try to coach you into responding appropriately. Once the simulation starts mental health professionals can typically see what you see and can guide you through the session by controlling its length and intensity. The length typically depends on your tolerance level.  

Drawbacks and potential risks of VR therapy 

For mental health professionals: VR therapy and VRET are still relatively new forms of treatment and are not routine in clinical use compared to standard therapeutic treatment. VR equipment, software, apps, and information on how to use them are not always readily available. Training availability may also be scarce.  

For clients: VRET may only be relegated to certain providers at large hospital networks or specialized treatment centers. It may not be a realistic option for people who are not tech-savvy or who have limited access to computers, smart devices, and strong Internet connections.  

For some clients, there is a potential to feel nausea during treatment. Other individuals may find the simulations to feel too vivid, which could lead to a retraumatizing experience if that individual isn’t guided by a well-trained professional.  

As with any type of therapy, the mental health professional’s expertise usually dictates how successful VRET is. You should have a conversation with your mental health professional to find out if VRET is a possibility for you.  

Learn more about the mental health options you have as a Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM) or Blue Care Network (BCN) member by visiting bcbsm.com/mentalhealth.    

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Photo credit: Getty Images

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