How virtual reality therapy could help with PTSD, depression and anxiety

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  • Virtual reality therapy could soon become widespread.
  • Research shows virtual reality exposure therapy can be effective in treating mental health issues like PTSD and anxiety disorders.
  • Early evidence suggests that computer-generated avatars, driven by motion-capture technology, may even improve the client-therapist relationship.

Video game and movie companies make extensive use of motion capture technology to create realistic digital characters and avatars.

Now a January 2022 study Researchers from Edith Cowan University in Western Australia suggest that virtual reality (VR) therapy using realistic motion-capture avatars is not only possible, but may be more effective than traditional therapy for some.

As VR technology develops, your therapist may soon join you in the metaverse as an avatar. What may look like a graphic video game or a dystopian future has been shown by new research.

The study suggests that realistic motion avatars could be “the future of social interactions in virtual reality”, which could have clinical implications for therapeutic relationships.

Shane L. RogersPhD, a researcher and lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Edith Cowan University in Australia, and lead author of the study, said that due to the increasing affordability of motion capture technology, it could start to be widely adopted for a wider variety of purposes – such as psychotherapy.

“The therapist can pilot the movement of a digital avatar in real time so that the avatar mimics their face and body movements in a fluid and realistic way,” Rogers told Psych Central.

Details of the new study

The study focused on the interactions between two avatars in a three-dimensional virtual environment.

Fifty-two undergraduate psychology students between the ages of 18 and 53 rated their experiences communicating with an avatar piloted by another person wearing motion capture technology.

They engaged in casual conversations to get to know you and were asked about positive and negative experiences.

Researchers compared avatar conversations to face-to-face conversations and found that around 30% of participants felt more comfortable disclosing negative experiences in virtual reality than face-to-face.

“This indicates that for a significant proportion of people, this mode of communication could be very useful for psychological therapy,” Rogers said. “We are currently doing more research to investigate this further.”

Virtual reality is not a new concept, even in therapeutic settings.

Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET) that places people in simulated combat-related environments – developed by tech companies like bravemind — is used at more than 100 locations across the United States to treat combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Although the process of reliving trauma can seem intense, research 2021 suggests that VRET may have benefits.

Research on the benefits of VR therapy for mental health issues dates back at least 1995when a small-scale study showed that exposure to virtual reality could help people with vertigo.

But the idea that a therapist-client relationship can occur in a virtual world is relatively new.

“Virtual reality communication transports you to another world,” Rogers said. “When you step out of the real world for a moment into the virtual world, for some people it may feel like a safer space to process negative feelings related to negative experiences.”

Rogers added that disclosing negative experiences to another person face-to-face can lead to feelings of shame or embarrassment. Interacting in virtual reality provides an additional layer of interpersonal distance, which makes it easier for some to disclose feelings.

He was also surprised at how much participants seemed to enjoy their social interactions in the virtual setting, suggesting a growing acceptance of technology.

“Human beings are social beings,” Rogers said. “Now that we can really put social into VR experiences, it opens up a huge amount of possibilities.”

A growing body of evidence, according to a 2021 reviewsuggests that VR therapy can benefit people with specific mental health conditions.

David A. MerrillMD, PhD, adult and geriatric psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Brain Health Center at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, California, uses virtual reality therapy in his outpatient memory clinic to provide “brain training” for people with the Alzheimer’s disease.

He said many people could benefit from virtual reality therapy, especially children and teens who might feel shy or wary about disclosing their feelings face-to-face with a therapist (even online or through Zoom).

“With VR technology, you can engage in clinically meaningful therapy that is actually preferred without ever leaving home,” Merrill told Psych Central. “I think it’s meant to be a proxy for unity when you can’t actually be together.”

PTSD

Research from 2020 suggests that prolonged exposure therapy and exposure to virtual reality could help people with post-traumatic stress manage their symptoms by recreating the narrative of their trauma.

“The core of PTSD is avoidance and anxiety that gets so bad that you’ve stopped doing things because you’re avoiding triggers and reminders,” Merrill said.

“You can create a narrative where you realize you were there, you went through such a horrible thing, and you survived.”

Anxiety and phobias

2019 research shows that VRET may also be beneficial for anxiety disorders, particularly phobias.

Virtual spaces can be created to expose individuals to specific anxieties or phobias in a virtual setting, such as fear of heights or spiders.

Moreover, another recent study suggests that virtual companions in the form of avatars can help reduce anxiety by providing support, especially in women.

Depression

According to a study 2021.

Merrill said virtual reality could help those who have lost their sense of motivation, fun and joy.

“Bringing joy or pleasure to therapy would be an important element that could be a benefit,” Merrill said. “You can meet [your therapist] on the phone or on Zoom – but I think there are people who would be quite happy to meet in the metaverse.

Virtual reality may seem like fun and fun, but it’s not for everyone. The side effects of VR May include:

Moreover, psychotherapy can still come with risks — even in the virtual world.

Those who try VR therapy may overcome feelings of overwhelm and anxiety about the therapy process with a professional.

“You have to trust that the therapeutic setting is going to be maintained and that it’s professional therapy,” Merrill said, “That kind of protection from vulnerability of altered states or altered realities.”

In a tech-driven world already struggling with Zoom fatigue, is metaverse burnout on the horizon?

Meta, formerly known as Facebook, will soon release its VR communication platform,”Horizon Worlds“, which means that it won’t be long before state-of-the-art VR technology and headsets become widely available.

“I predict we’re going to see VR social interaction becoming much more common in the not too distant future,” Rogers said.

“Harnessing motion capture to make avatars more closely mimic the body language of the person behind the avatar is the key ingredient to improving the experience enough to bring VR communication into the mainstream.”

Although Edith Cowan’s study is preliminary and the technology has yet to be developed, meeting your therapist in the metaverse, as the new research suggests, could present a new avenue for those who might not feel right at home. comfortable with traditional therapy, whether in real life or online.

Research supports VRET therapy for certain mental health conditions, but avatar-based VR therapy is still in its infancy.

Emerging research suggests that virtual reality technologies could complement – not replace – the in-person therapeutic process. For some people, a combination of traditional therapy and virtual reality can work well.

“I think one of the fears of the metaverse is that you stop living in reality, whereas virtual reality is meant to help you get back to a healthier life in the world,” Merrill said.

“It’s hard to imagine technology evolving to the point of replacing the therapist, because it’s more about connecting with another person in a virtual space rather than connecting with a virtual entity.”

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