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How Virtual Reality Improves Mental Health

A shortage of behavioral health providers has made mental health treatments expensive and inaccessible. In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25%, according to a scientific brief released by the World Health Organization (WHO).

This data is a wake-up call to reduce gaps in care for those that need it most. Mental health is an integral component of overall vitality and well-being that underpins our individual and collective abilities to live fulfilling lives, build relationships and shape the world we live in.

For over 20 years researchers and technology innovators have combined clinical psychological science with the best immersive VR technologies to assess, understand, and treat mental health problems. Research is showing that this technology can improve mental health and can in some cases be more effective than conventional digital mental health treatments.

Here are 5 ways virtual reality improves mental health:

1. Phobias and PTSD

VR exposure therapies are particularly effective for anxiety, provoking realistic reactions to stimuli that can cause fear. In the 1990s, Rothbaum conducted the first study in the field of psychiatry to investigate if VR can treat a fear of heights. Exposure therapy is a well-established treatment for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that requires the patient to focus on and describe the details of a traumatic experience. Exposure methods include confrontation with frightening, yet realistically safe, stimuli that continue until anxiety is reduced.

VR exposure therapies have shown many benefits for patients with a specific phobia or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by the extinction of traumatic experiences through repetitive exposures within a virtual environment. The VR exposure therapy system, “Bravemind,” is currently distributed to over 50 sites, including VA hospitals, military bases, and university centers to provide relief from PTSD for soldiers.

2. Stress and Pain Alleviation

Virtual reality has been shown to be a practical tool for immersive, three-dimensional (3D), multisensory experiences that distract patients from painful stimuli. VR for stress and pain alleviation typically provides engaging forms of distraction within a virtual environment. Various companies including Rocket VR, offer procedural distraction before and during stressful or painful procedures. The FDA has approved a comprehensive VR cognitive and emotional program called RelieVRx that has been shown to be an effective way to treat chronic lower back pain without relying on opioids.

3. Depression

VR for depression uses range from immersive cognitive behavioral therapy, telemedicine sessions made immersive, avatar-to-avatar live therapy sessions, and on-demand therapeutic exercises. Studies at the University of Barcelona have shown that applying VR to depressed patients can reduce the severity of their depression and self-degradation while increasing satisfaction. The researchers created 5 scenarios that are potentially self-threatening and can elicit varying degrees of self-criticism or self-compassion. Participants in the study were able to improve their self-compassion by experiencing scenarios in their virtual avatars where they were delivering compassion or receiving it from another virtual body.

4. More Effective Mindfulness

Virtual reality has the potential to revolutionize mindfulness and meditation apps with multi-sensory experiences overtake simple audio meditations. Virtual reality enables users to visit different destinations and environments virtually while animations guide the user's breath creating a truly relaxing and calming meditation experience.

A comprehensive review of seven studies, has shown that VR-based mindfulness training is more effective than conventional mindfulness. The research has shown improvements in mindfulness and meditation experience as well as reduction in anxiety, and depression, and improvements in sleep quality, emotion regulation, and overall mood.

5. Distress Management

There is a shortage of general mental health support but even a larger problem when it comes to treating cancer-related distress. The high costs of cancer treatments mean that mental health is often overlooked as more than one in three people with cancer experience mental or emotional distress. The inherent nature of cancer-related distress may affect any domain of a patient's life, including: physical, psychological, social, and/or spiritual.

Rocket VR Health in partnership with Massachusets General Hospital has created an enhanced recovery program where patients can by themselves improve their coping skills, relax, learn and treat their emotional and psychological problems. This VR intervention aims to improve self-efficacy and coping skills, provides patients with relaxation techniques to manage associated symptoms, and provides patients information on their specific conditions to improve prognostic understanding.

Looking Ahead

Virtual reality’s use in mental health provides an innovative approach that can soon prove to be transformational. When used in a thoughtful and conscious way, it can provide a much-needed engaging and affordable therapeutic experiences that can leave a lasting impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing.

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