How virtual reality could help treat PTSD and anxiety

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Virtual Reality (VR) is an exciting technology that has been around since the 1960s. For a long time, virtual reality has been synonymous with gaming and entertainment. However, its applications in modern medicine are numerous.

Over 20 years of studies and research suggest that VR technology can effectively treat PTSD, anxiety, and several types of phobias. With haptics in the works, we’ve only scratched the surface of what VR is capable of.

While there is a lot of research on the effectiveness of virtual reality in treating mental disorders, the technology is still being tested. Preliminary trials have shown the potential of virtual reality to treat a range of mental disorders. Each year, the technological limitations tend to decrease and this makes this treatment all the more promising. But how does VR help patients recover from PTSD?


What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health problem. People who experience traumatic events exhibit a variety of symptoms. Symptoms can include nightmares, anxiety, social isolation, triggered flashbacks, depression, and intrusion. You can develop PTSD if you’ve been in an accident, witnessed violence, abuse, or sustained a serious injury. Current treatments include exposure therapy, CBT, EMDR, and medication.

Even genetics influence the likelihood of developing mental disorders. According to US Department of Veterans Affairs, an estimated 6% of American adults suffer from PTSD in their lifetime, or about 15 million people in any given year. It doesn’t even take children into account. Therefore, the number may tend to be even higher. Additionally, women are more likely to develop symptoms of PTSD than men.

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Stress can destroy newly formed neurons in the brain. Thus, it is imperative to treat PTSD as soon as possible. VR has been shown to be faster and more effective than conventional treatments. It accomplishes this task through Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET).

What is VR exposure therapy?

Virtual reality exposure therapy is a type of exposure therapy that treats different types of phobias, anxiety disorders, and symptoms of PTSD. It is an improved form of exposure therapy (ET). AND is conflicting treatment; it targets different triggers and avoidance behaviors.

For example, an accident victim may develop a fear of traveling by car or on public transport. Therefore, by using ET, a patient confronts their fears and triggers. This logically helps to understand their behavior and dismantle the fear.


A man using a VR headset

However, dealing with a variety of triggers can be difficult. For example, exposing a veteran to an active combat environment is neither possible nor safe under conventional ET. This is where VRET comes in. Virtual simulations make exposure therapy extremely effective and personalized. With VRET, patients with PTSD can be exposed to their triggers and fears in a controlled, safe and realistic way.

How does VR exposure therapy work?

Computer generated simulations are at the heart of VRET. The simulations mimic the real world in the most realistic way possible. The computer-generated environment is personalized and programmed according to the needs of the patient. With a virtual reality headset such as the Oculus Quest 2, you can begin to experience the simulation. In addition to simple sight, VRET can also include sounds, smells and vibrations to magnify the experience.


Patients can experience and interact with the personalized 3D environment in a highly controlled manner. However, it depends on the simulation. If the simulation is created only for passive confrontation, the interaction is minimal. As simulations become more realistic, interacting with AI-generated elements becomes more and more popular.

Features like movement and head tracking ensure the most precise and intuitive 360-degree experience. In the near future, advanced machine learning algorithms could help therapists better identify markers of mental health and create optimized treatment plans.

Related: Which Is Better For Virtual Reality: Mobile Or Connected Headsets

VRET may be better than conventional therapy

There are several reasons why the VRET is higher than conventional exposure therapy. Conventional ET can only target specific social triggers and fears. This limits the effectiveness and scope of exposure therapy.

Take the example of PTSD induced by sexual assault. In real life, it is difficult to expose a PTSD patient to a similar trigger. Likewise, the confrontation with combat exposure, fire hazards, etc., cannot be safely reproduced. Therefore, VR is the most effective and cost-effective method of exposure therapy.

VRET removes all imaginable limitations. For example, a person with extreme social anxiety can learn to cope with social situations without breaking down in public.

Until now, such type of exposure has never been possible. Likewise, VR can treat phobias such as arachnophobia, hydrophobia, and claustrophobia. Essentially, any mental disorder that requires confrontation can benefit from VRET.

How effective is VRET?

Medical treatments must be scrutinized and subjected to rigorous testing before being approved. Treatment is approved if it surpasses the control group or a placebo. VRET has already entered clinical trials.


The UCF test: Researchers at the University of Central Florida (UCF) are currently testing their proprietary VRET software: Traumatic Event Scene Creation System. The state-of-the-art system allows therapists to intuitively create any scene in minutes by entering trigger details.

UCF’s virtual reality software will uniquely immerse participants in the sights, smells and sounds of their trauma. The trial will run until the second quarter of 2022. You can participate or find out more about the ongoing trials at The UCF information portal.


The system for creating scenes of traumatic events by UCF Restores

The Oxford Trial: A test conducted by Oxford University in 2016 achieved positive results. Although the sample size was limited to 30 patients, the results were promising. Participants reported significant reductions in anxiety and paranoia after undergoing as little as 30 minutes of VRET.

Related: How Virtual Reality (VR) Is Improving Healthcare Right Now

There is a lot of empirical evidence that suggests the effectiveness of VRET. Research on the use of virtual reality for psychotherapy dates back to the early 2000s. There is over 20 years of peer-reviewed scientific literature that strongly suggests the effectiveness of VRET. Previously, due to technological limitations, it was not possible to create realistic simulations. Now, VRET is within our reach.

The future of VRET

VRET will only get better over time. With the results of the UCF trial, VRET is likely to become widespread over the next three years. Another factor preventing this therapy from reaching more people is the cost involved. VR headsets and proprietary software are expensive. Therefore, as these get cheaper, so will VRET.

The VR field is booming. Creating accurate dynamic simulations is a complex task. However, game engines like Unreal 5, Unity, and other proprietary engines can create virtual worlds that are almost indistinguishable from reality.

Facebook’s new Metaverse project is a testament to what is possible in virtual reality. The Metaverse will create a virtual universe of limitless possibilities. Such advancements will make virtual therapy sessions a reality. VRET is a revolutionary method of psychotherapy, and it’s already here.


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