VR May Change the Future of Therapy

Researchers are studying how virtual reality can treat everything from PTSD to anorexia to anxiety

Tessa Love
Elemental
Published in
6 min readOct 23, 2019

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Illustration: Alexis Jamet

Researchers are discovering that virtual reality (VR) is more than just a fancy way to play video games. It’s proving useful in therapy.

“What does head-mounted display virtual reality provide people?” says Skip Rizzo, research professor and director for medical virtual reality at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies. “It can immerse a person in an environment that can help them to get over their fears or confront their past traumas, all in a controlled stimulus environment.”

Rizzo started studying the potential of VR as a clinical application back in the 1990s when the first wave of hype around the technology surged. His initial research explored the use of game-like environments to help people recover from brain injuries. When early research proved successful, he started to explore other applications. So far, VR has shown to be useful for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and eating disorders and diagnosing depression and attention deficit disorders.

The area where VR seems to have the biggest impact is in the treatment of PTSD. People with PTSD often cope by avoiding the triggers that set off the anxiety, fear, memories, and thoughts associated with the traumatic event. While this protects them in the short term, in the long term, it reinforces the idea that those triggers are as harmful as the PTSD makes a person believe they are, and makes it harder for that person to heal.

To work past this, psychologists have found the use of what’s called graduated exposure therapy to be highly effective. The therapy involves the gradual, repeated “reliving” of the traumatic event in their imagination. The idea is that through this imagined exposure, the person suffering from PTSD can process the emotions associated with the trauma and learn that there is no longer anything to fear.

The problem with this treatment, however, is having to rely on the imagination. Can people really effectively imagine their traumatic experiences? And what about the ones who are unwilling or unable to do so?

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