When virtual reality (VR) comes to mind, the first thing you think of is probably a person wearing a headset purely for entertainment. However, there’s a growing trend of using VR to enhance mental health.
It Helps People Confront Their Fears in Safe Ways
Many individuals diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder find the mental ailment severely disrupts the ability to have a fulfilling life. They often suffer from nightmares and keep reliving disturbing scenes in their minds.
However, some mental health professionals recommend patients with post-traumatic stress disorder and similar problems use virtual reality to face their fears in non-threatening environments.
Bravemind VR Exposure Therapy is one platform currently in use, and it offers realistic desert scenes to soldiers recovering from mental battlefield scars. In addition to visual imagery, the software can provide smells and vibrations for patients.
VR Is Broadening the Available Treatment Options
Just like their illnesses, people diagnosed with mental health problems are unique. Unfortunately, that sometimes means even interventions that have a high probability of effectiveness won’t always work for every patient.
However, a great thing about VR is that it’s easy to supplement with other mental health therapies. Researchers from Oxford University will soon begin testing out that method of using VR when it uses the technology to treat schizophrenic patients who hear voices in their heads or get extremely anxious or depressed by real-world experiences. Instead of interacting with their communities, they see isolation as the better choice.
A new trial involving the United Kingdom’s National Health Service will combine VR with a mental health professional delivering cognitive therapies to complement the visual and audio feedback. Experts say humans are often more reassuring than computers, so VR shouldn’t be used without therapists alongside the patients.
Depending on how this experiment goes, VR could soon be viewed as an effective treatment for schizophrenia. This study may also encourage mental health experts to begin looking at VR to assist other patients who are dealing with debilitating issues.
VR Could Help People Get Immersed in Mindfulness Exercises
People who specialize in helping individuals recover from substance abuse often coach their patients through mindfulness meditation. Research shows that practice can rewire the brain’s neural pathways when combined with other treatments. Exercises sometimes require people to imagine they’re sitting on a beach or watching the movement of a gurgling brook.
If individuals are too anxious, it’s often difficult for them to become fully engaged with mindfulness and similar exercises, such as visualization. They may become frustrated because they’re not able to successfully envision specific scenarios — but VR might help.
A study comparing the worthiness of traditional mindfulness practices with those based in virtual reality found the VR-aided techniques made people feel calmer than those experienced without VR.
Also, the researchers found medium to high responses on a numerical scale when they asked patients to rate how much it felt like they were present in the virtual reality landscapes.
This research indicates when mental health professionals work with patients who have trouble creating vivid images in their heads for mindfulness or relaxation purposes, VR could be a good next step to try.
Using VR to Increase Self-Compassion in Depressed People
Statistics from the World Health Organization indicate more than 300 million people around the world are depressed.
Although a myriad of factors contribute to depression, individuals who have been through adverse events are more likely to experience it than those who have not. Then, vicious self-doubt can occur and trigger people to mentally berate themselves for the tough circumstances.
However, research in 2016 found VR sessions could increase self-compassion in people with depression. In the study, 15 patients with depression went through eight-minute VR scenarios where participants had to give compassion to a virtual body, then receive it for themselves via another simulated human form.
After only going through the exercise three times, patients showed less evidence of self-criticism, while their levels of self-compassion went up, as reported at a follow-up session that took place after four weeks. Also, the people who took part in the study were less depressed than they’d been at the start.
Because of the outcomes of this investigation, the researchers leading the study think developing their methods is a valid next step. They also want to plan a controlled trial, which would involve some participants not receiving the VR treatment, while others did.
So, what’s the future for VR in mental health improvements? Some people think it could become a feasible alternative or supplement to talk-based therapies. There is also evidence it may emerge as one of the leading options, instead of a treatment that’s still on the fringes.