Virtual Reality and Mental Health

Virtual reality and mental health

Verified by World Mental Healthcare Association

Virtual reality (VR) technology has been gaining attention as a potential tool for improving mental health. By creating immersive and interactive environments, VR therapy has shown promise in treating conditions such as anxiety, phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This innovative approach to mental healthcare is rapidly evolving, with new research and applications emerging all the time. Read on to know everything about virtual reality and mental health.

What is Virtual Reality Therapy?

Virtual reality therapy (VRT) should be distinct from teletherapy, which involves talking to a therapist remotely via video rather than traveling to their physical office.

VRT, on the other hand, utilizes computer-generated 1 Emmelkamp, P. M. G., & Meyerbröker, K. (2021). Virtual Reality Therapy in Mental Health. Annual review of clinical psychology, 17, 495–519. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-081219-115923 simulations to create immersive digital environments that can provide a powerful form of treatment for a variety of mental health issues when used effectively.

Early studies of VR therapy focused on treating phobias 2 North, M. M., North, S. M., & Coble, J. R. (1998). Virtual reality therapy: an effective treatment for phobias. Studies in health technology and informatics, 58, 112–119. , such as fear of heights or flying. For example, a person with a fear of heights may be immersed in a virtual environment that simulates being on top of a tall building. Over time, VR therapy has expanded to treat a wide range 3 Maples-Keller, J. L., Yasinski, C., Manjin, N., & Rothbaum, B. O. (2017). Virtual Reality-Enhanced Extinction of Phobias and Post-Traumatic Stress. Neurotherapeutics : the journal of the American Society for Experimental NeuroTherapeutics, 14(3), 554–563. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13311-017-0534-y of mental health conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, and substance use disorders.

Who can be Eligible for Virtual Reality Therapy

Principles of Virtual Reality Therapy

There are different principles that are applicable 4 Hacmun, I., Regev, D., & Salomon, R. (2018). The Principles of Art Therapy in Virtual Reality. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 2082. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02082 to virtual reality therapy:

  • Creating a safe and controlled environment of “being there” or being present in the virtual environment.
  • Tailoring the virtual environment to the individual needs and goals of each patient.
  • Gradually expose patients to their fears and triggers.
  • Providing real-time feedback to patients and therapists on progress and treatment effectiveness.
  • Allowing patients to interact with the virtual environment in a meaningful way.

Why Virtual Reality Therapy is Used?

Virtual reality therapy is currently being widely used in various settings because it offers numerous benefits such as 5 Wu, B., Zheng, C., & Huang, B. (2022). Influence of science education on the mental health of adolescents based on virtual reality. Frontiers in psychology, 13, 895196. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.895196 a safe environment, easy accessibility, customization, cost-effectiveness, and immersive experiences that ultimately lead to better patient outcomes and satisfaction.

Due to these advantages, virtual reality treatment for mental health has the potential to provide an innovative and effective approach for patients in different settings, including:

1. Clinical Settings

Virtual reality therapy is used in clinical settings 6 Son, H., Ross, A., Mendoza-Tirado, E., & Lee, L. J. (2022). Virtual Reality in Clinical Practice and Research: Viewpoint on Novel Applications for Nursing. JMIR nursing, 5(1), e34036. https://doi.org/10.2196/34036 to treat conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, and phobias, because it provides a safe and controlled environment for patients to confront their fears and anxieties, allowing for desensitization and gradual exposure.

Read More About PTSD Here

2. Education and Training Settings

Virtual reality therapy is also used in education and training 7 Huang, K. T., Ball, C., Francis, J., Ratan, R., Boumis, J., & Fordham, J. (2019). Augmented Versus Virtual Reality in Education: An Exploratory Study Examining Science Knowledge Retention When Using Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality Mobile Applications. Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking, 22(2), 105–110. https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2018.0150 settings to teach social and communication skills to individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disorders. It can also be used to train medical professionals, first responders, and military personnel in high-stress situations.

Read More About Autism Here

3. Rehabilitation Settings

Virtual reality therapy can provide simulations 8 Tokgöz, P., Stampa, S., Wähnert, D., Vordemvenne, T., & Dockweiler, C. (2022). Virtual Reality in the Rehabilitation of Patients with Injuries and Diseases of Upper Extremities. Healthcare (Basel, Switzerland), 10(6), 1124. https://doi.org/10.3390/healthcare10061124 of high-risk situations, such as social situations where drugs or alcohol are present, or environments that may trigger cravings. Patients can practice coping skills in these virtual environments, such as relaxation techniques, mindfulness, and problem-solving skills to heal the situation.

4. Pain Management Settings

Virtual reality therapy has also shown promise in managing pain 9 Li, A., Montaño, Z., Chen, V. J., & Gold, J. I. (2011). Virtual reality and pain management: current trends and future directions. Pain management, 1(2), 147–157. https://doi.org/10.2217/pmt.10.15 for patients with chronic pain conditions. It can distract patients from their pain, provide relaxation techniques, and improve mood.

5. Personal Growth and Wellness

Virtual reality therapy can be used for personal growth 10 Hsiao S. C. (2021). Effects of the Application of Virtual Reality to Experiential Education on Self-Efficacy and Learning Motivation of Social Workers. Frontiers in psychology, 12, 770481. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.770481 and wellness. It can provide an immersive experience for meditation and relaxation, or for personal exploration and reflection.

How to Use Virtual Reality Therapy?

The general process for using virtual reality therapy includes:

1. Assessment

The therapist will conduct an assessment 11 Freeman, D., Reeve, S., Robinson, A., Ehlers, A., Clark, D., Spanlang, B., & Slater, M. (2017). Virtual reality in the assessment, understanding, and treatment of mental health disorders. Psychological medicine, 47(14), 2393–2400. https://doi.org/10.1017/S003329171700040X of the patient’s mental health condition and determine if virtual reality is an appropriate treatment option.

2. Preparation

The therapist will explain the virtual reality therapy process to the patient and provide instructions 12 Krzystanek, M., Surma, S., Stokrocka, M., Romańczyk, M., Przybyło, J., Krzystanek, N., & Borkowski, M. (2021). Tips for Effective Implementation of Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy in Phobias-A Systematic Review. Frontiers in psychiatry, 12, 737351. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2021.737351 on how to use the equipment.

3. Therapy Sessions

The patient will enter the virtual environment, where they can practice various strategies 13 Monaghesh, E., Samad-Soltani, T., & Farhang, S. (2022). Virtual reality-based interventions for patients with paranoia: A systematic review. Psychiatry research, 307, 114338. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2021.114338 to confront their fears and anxieties, such as techniques used in exposure therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy.

4. Feedback and Adjustment

The therapist will provide feedback on the patient’s progress 14 Jensen-Doss, A., Haimes, E. M. B., Smith, A. M., Lyon, A. R., Lewis, C. C., Stanick, C. F., & Hawley, K. M. (2018). Monitoring Treatment Progress and Providing Feedback is Viewed Favorably but Rarely Used in Practice. Administration and policy in mental health, 45(1), 48–61. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10488-016-0763-0 and may make adjustments to the therapy as needed.

5. Follow-up

The therapist will schedule follow-up 15 Carroll, K. M., Rounsaville, B. J., Nich, C., Gordon, L. T., Wirtz, P. W., & Gawin, F. (1994). One-year follow-up of psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy for cocaine dependence. Delayed emergence of psychotherapy effects. Archives of general psychiatry, 51(12), 989–997. https://doi.org/10.1001/archpsyc.1994.03950120061010 appointments to monitor the patient’s progress and adjust the therapy as necessary.

Virtual Reality Applications in Mental Health Care

Virtual reality therapy has shown promise in the treatment of a variety of mental health disorders, including:

1. Obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Patients with OCD can be exposed to virtual environments 16 Kim, K., Kim, C. H., Kim, S. Y., Roh, D., & Kim, S. I. (2009). Virtual reality for obsessive-compulsive disorder: past and the future. Psychiatry investigation, 6(3), 115–121. https://doi.org/10.4306/pi.2009.6.3.115 that simulate dirty or contaminated surfaces, allowing them to confront their fears and anxieties in a safe and controlled environment. This can help them feel less anxious and reduce their symptoms of obsession and compulsion over time.

Read More About OCD Here

2. Depression

Virtual reality therapy can create an immersive and captivating environment that helps patients to engage in activities and experiences that promote positive emotions 17 Baghaei, N., Chitale, V., Hlasnik, A., Stemmet, L., Liang, H. N., & Porter, R. (2021). Virtual Reality for Supporting the Treatment of Depression and Anxiety: Scoping Review. JMIR mental health, 8(9), e29681. https://doi.org/10.2196/29681 , boost mood, and increase motivation. By providing an exciting and enjoyable environment, virtual reality therapy can make it easier for patients to pursue activities that are pleasurable and uplifting.

Read More About Depression Here

3. Eating Disorders

The use of virtual reality in mental health therapy for eating disorders is seen in body image exposure 18 Riva, G., Malighetti, C., & Serino, S. (2021). Virtual reality in the treatment of eating disorders. Clinical psychology & psychotherapy, 28(3), 477–488. https://doi.org/10.1002/cpp.2622 . Patients are exposed to virtual environments that simulate a range of body sizes and shapes, allowing them to challenge their negative beliefs and thoughts about their own body image.

By confronting these negative beliefs in a safe and controlled environment, patients can learn to accept and appreciate their bodies in a more positive way.

Read More About Eating Disorders Here

4. Stress Reduction

Virtual reality can provide relaxation techniques 19 Kim, H., Kim, D. J., Kim, S., Chung, W. H., Park, K. A., Kim, J. D. K., Kim, D., Kim, M. J., Kim, K., & Jeon, H. J. (2021). Effect of Virtual Reality on Stress Reduction and Change of Physiological Parameters Including Heart Rate Variability in People With High Stress: An Open Randomized Crossover Trial. Frontiers in psychiatry, 12, 614539. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2021.614539 , mindfulness practices, and stress reduction exercises. For example, patients who tend to have a sign of a high level of stress can be guided through virtual environments that have been designed to induce relaxation, such as a peaceful forest or beach.

5. Social Skills Training

Virtual reality can provide a simulated environment 20 Parsons, S., & Mitchell, P. (2002). The potential of virtual reality in social skills training for people with autistic spectrum disorders. Journal of intellectual disability research : JIDR, 46(Pt 5), 430–443. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-2788.2002.00425.x for patients to practice social skills and interactions, allowing for the development of social skills in a safe and controlled environment.

Advantages of Virtual Reality Therapy

The benefits of virtual reality in mental health 21 Liu, Z., Ren, L., Xiao, C., Zhang, K., & Demian, P. (2022). Virtual Reality Aided Therapy towards Health 4.0: A Two-Decade Bibliometric Analysis. International journal of environmental research and public health, 19(3), 1525. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19031525 include:

  1. Increases patient engagement and motivation in therapy.
  2. May provide faster symptom relief than traditional therapy methods.
  3. Allows for remote therapy sessions, increasing accessibility to treatment.
  4. Reduces the cost and time required for traditional therapy.
  5. Provides a variety of relaxation and stress-reducing techniques.

Limitations of Virtual Reality Therapy

The mental health benefits of virtual reality may not be accessible to all patients and it is important to consider these limitations 22 Baniasadi, T., Ayyoubzadeh, S. M., & Mohammadzadeh, N. (2020). Challenges and Practical Considerations in Applying Virtual Reality in Medical Education and Treatment. Oman medical journal, 35(3), e125. https://doi.org/10.5001/omj.2020.43 when deciding on a treatment approach for mental health conditions, such as:

  • Virtual reality therapy may require specialized training for clinicians to administer and monitor therapy effectively.
  • Technical issues such as glitches or malfunctions can interrupt therapy sessions and cause frustration for patients and clinicians.
  • The long-term effectiveness of virtual reality therapy is still unclear, and more research is needed to evaluate its benefits compared to traditional therapy.

Takeaway

Virtual reality in mental health treatment offers a new and innovative approach for patients that are personalized, engaging, and effective. However, it is important to note that virtual reality therapy for mental health may not be suitable for all patients and more research is needed to fully evaluate its long-term effectiveness.

At A Glance

  1. Virtual reality therapy uses simulated environments for mental health treatment.
  2. Virtual reality for mental health therapy can be used to treat anxiety disorders, PTSD, depression, and eating disorders.
  3. It offers a safe and controlled environment for patients to confront their fears and anxieties.
  4. Patients can practice coping strategies and improve their mental health and well-being.
  5. Its application is based on the needs and goals of each patient.
  6. It can include exposure therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, relaxation techniques, and skill building.
  7. Potential limitations of virtual reality therapy include cost, accessibility, and the need for specialized equipment and trained professionals.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. How is virtual reality used in mental health?

Virtual reality is used in mental health to create immersive simulations that allow patients to confront their fears and anxieties in a safe and controlled environment. It can be used to treat a variety of mental health conditions, including anxiety disorders, PTSD, depression, and eating disorders.

2. How does virtual reality affect mental health?

Virtual reality can positively affect mental health by allowing them to practice coping strategies and improve mental well-being. However, its effectiveness depends on the needs of the individual patient and their specific mental health condition.

3. Is virtual reality really more effective than other lines of therapy?

Virtual reality therapy has been found to be effective in treating a range of mental health conditions, and in some cases, it may be more effective than traditional therapy methods. However, the effectiveness of virtual reality therapy may vary depending on the individual and the specific condition being treated.

References:

  • 1
    Emmelkamp, P. M. G., & Meyerbröker, K. (2021). Virtual Reality Therapy in Mental Health. Annual review of clinical psychology, 17, 495–519. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-081219-115923
  • 2
    North, M. M., North, S. M., & Coble, J. R. (1998). Virtual reality therapy: an effective treatment for phobias. Studies in health technology and informatics, 58, 112–119.
  • 3
    Maples-Keller, J. L., Yasinski, C., Manjin, N., & Rothbaum, B. O. (2017). Virtual Reality-Enhanced Extinction of Phobias and Post-Traumatic Stress. Neurotherapeutics : the journal of the American Society for Experimental NeuroTherapeutics, 14(3), 554–563. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13311-017-0534-y
  • 4
    Hacmun, I., Regev, D., & Salomon, R. (2018). The Principles of Art Therapy in Virtual Reality. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 2082. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02082
  • 5
    Wu, B., Zheng, C., & Huang, B. (2022). Influence of science education on the mental health of adolescents based on virtual reality. Frontiers in psychology, 13, 895196. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.895196
  • 6
    Son, H., Ross, A., Mendoza-Tirado, E., & Lee, L. J. (2022). Virtual Reality in Clinical Practice and Research: Viewpoint on Novel Applications for Nursing. JMIR nursing, 5(1), e34036. https://doi.org/10.2196/34036
  • 7
    Huang, K. T., Ball, C., Francis, J., Ratan, R., Boumis, J., & Fordham, J. (2019). Augmented Versus Virtual Reality in Education: An Exploratory Study Examining Science Knowledge Retention When Using Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality Mobile Applications. Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking, 22(2), 105–110. https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2018.0150
  • 8
    Tokgöz, P., Stampa, S., Wähnert, D., Vordemvenne, T., & Dockweiler, C. (2022). Virtual Reality in the Rehabilitation of Patients with Injuries and Diseases of Upper Extremities. Healthcare (Basel, Switzerland), 10(6), 1124. https://doi.org/10.3390/healthcare10061124
  • 9
    Li, A., Montaño, Z., Chen, V. J., & Gold, J. I. (2011). Virtual reality and pain management: current trends and future directions. Pain management, 1(2), 147–157. https://doi.org/10.2217/pmt.10.15
  • 10
    Hsiao S. C. (2021). Effects of the Application of Virtual Reality to Experiential Education on Self-Efficacy and Learning Motivation of Social Workers. Frontiers in psychology, 12, 770481. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.770481
  • 11
    Freeman, D., Reeve, S., Robinson, A., Ehlers, A., Clark, D., Spanlang, B., & Slater, M. (2017). Virtual reality in the assessment, understanding, and treatment of mental health disorders. Psychological medicine, 47(14), 2393–2400. https://doi.org/10.1017/S003329171700040X
  • 12
    Krzystanek, M., Surma, S., Stokrocka, M., Romańczyk, M., Przybyło, J., Krzystanek, N., & Borkowski, M. (2021). Tips for Effective Implementation of Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy in Phobias-A Systematic Review. Frontiers in psychiatry, 12, 737351. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2021.737351
  • 13
    Monaghesh, E., Samad-Soltani, T., & Farhang, S. (2022). Virtual reality-based interventions for patients with paranoia: A systematic review. Psychiatry research, 307, 114338. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2021.114338
  • 14
    Jensen-Doss, A., Haimes, E. M. B., Smith, A. M., Lyon, A. R., Lewis, C. C., Stanick, C. F., & Hawley, K. M. (2018). Monitoring Treatment Progress and Providing Feedback is Viewed Favorably but Rarely Used in Practice. Administration and policy in mental health, 45(1), 48–61. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10488-016-0763-0
  • 15
    Carroll, K. M., Rounsaville, B. J., Nich, C., Gordon, L. T., Wirtz, P. W., & Gawin, F. (1994). One-year follow-up of psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy for cocaine dependence. Delayed emergence of psychotherapy effects. Archives of general psychiatry, 51(12), 989–997. https://doi.org/10.1001/archpsyc.1994.03950120061010
  • 16
    Kim, K., Kim, C. H., Kim, S. Y., Roh, D., & Kim, S. I. (2009). Virtual reality for obsessive-compulsive disorder: past and the future. Psychiatry investigation, 6(3), 115–121. https://doi.org/10.4306/pi.2009.6.3.115
  • 17
    Baghaei, N., Chitale, V., Hlasnik, A., Stemmet, L., Liang, H. N., & Porter, R. (2021). Virtual Reality for Supporting the Treatment of Depression and Anxiety: Scoping Review. JMIR mental health, 8(9), e29681. https://doi.org/10.2196/29681
  • 18
    Riva, G., Malighetti, C., & Serino, S. (2021). Virtual reality in the treatment of eating disorders. Clinical psychology & psychotherapy, 28(3), 477–488. https://doi.org/10.1002/cpp.2622
  • 19
    Kim, H., Kim, D. J., Kim, S., Chung, W. H., Park, K. A., Kim, J. D. K., Kim, D., Kim, M. J., Kim, K., & Jeon, H. J. (2021). Effect of Virtual Reality on Stress Reduction and Change of Physiological Parameters Including Heart Rate Variability in People With High Stress: An Open Randomized Crossover Trial. Frontiers in psychiatry, 12, 614539. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2021.614539
  • 20
    Parsons, S., & Mitchell, P. (2002). The potential of virtual reality in social skills training for people with autistic spectrum disorders. Journal of intellectual disability research : JIDR, 46(Pt 5), 430–443. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-2788.2002.00425.x
  • 21
    Liu, Z., Ren, L., Xiao, C., Zhang, K., & Demian, P. (2022). Virtual Reality Aided Therapy towards Health 4.0: A Two-Decade Bibliometric Analysis. International journal of environmental research and public health, 19(3), 1525. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19031525
  • 22
    Baniasadi, T., Ayyoubzadeh, S. M., & Mohammadzadeh, N. (2020). Challenges and Practical Considerations in Applying Virtual Reality in Medical Education and Treatment. Oman medical journal, 35(3), e125. https://doi.org/10.5001/omj.2020.43
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