Can Virtual Reality Help With Anxiety?

14/09/2016 14:33

One month ago as I pulled off my VR headset I felt a drop in my stomach as the motion sickness overwhelmed me.

I'd had motion sickness from VR before, but this was worse.

I experienced intense headaches, light-headedness and the symptoms persisted.

I'm still recovering to this day.

This experience gave me a salient reminder of just how powerful Virtual Reality is as a technology.

I will explore how VR can harness this power over our minds to influence the fundamental thoughts, feelings and emotions that underpin our everyday lives.

How we deal with fears, anxiety and pain, how we interact and empathize with other people, and even how we can learn to reshape our own memories.

For a more in-depth look check out my regular "VR and The Mind" column on VRFocus.

Here, I'll be focusing on the key highlights and practical things you can explore today, starting by exploring how VR could help anxiety.

"Anxiety is part of the new connectivity" - Sherry Turkle

Almost 20% of people are now believed to suffer from an anxiety disorder in the US (ADAA).

In the UK, around 40 per cent of new claimants for disability benefits are suffering from mental illnesses, of which anxiety and depression are the most common. (New Statesman)

This is clearly a growing issue and, right now, technology seems to be making things worse.

We are overwhelmed by a paradox of choice when attempting to make even the simplest decision, constantly comparing ourselves to glamorized representations of others on social media and attempting to achieve a Herculean number of tasks in parallel.

Most concerning, despite more people reporting symptoms and the high treatability of many anxiety disorders, less than a third of people actually seek help (ADAA).

We have on-demand transport, food and even dogs at our fingertips but continue to suffer in silence, anxiously glued to our devices.

So how could VR help?

Anxiety can broadly be tackled in three main ways, often employed in tandem.
Self treatment (e.g. Meditation), treatment from a professional therapist (e.g. Exposure Therapy) and medication (e.g. Prozac).

VR offers something in each area bar medication. Theoretically as we continue to make advances in tracking chemical and circuitry in the brain, you could be prescribed a specific experience to trigger a rebalancing of your brain chemistry, but it remains early for this.

Self treatment

There are already a plethora of meditation and relaxation apps like Headspace available online and on mobile.

Problem is, these apps don't automatically provide you a calming environment to practice in and risk providing more distraction equalling more anxiety.

VR can totally occlude a user from the physical environment and its distractions.

Guided Meditation VR created by Josh Farkas' Cubicle Ninjas is the most talked about, providing a range of environments that can be matched to your mood along with audio guidance.

I've tried it and it's impressive. The smartest feature is that the app lets you track your heart rate before and after the experience.

Other notable early movers include ShapeSpace VR and Deepak Chopra who are combining abstract art, interactive features and storytelling to offer a similar experience.

Professional therapy

Virtual based therapies are not new to professional treatments for psychological disorders.
Research institutes such as USC's Institute for Creative Technologies and Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab have been pioneering the use of VR as a therapeutic tool for decades.

Exposure based therapies, where patients are exposed to their fear or anxiety in a controlled environment, are particularly transferable to VR.

Patients can be put into highly realistic virtual environments, which can be entirely controlled and tweaked by therapists at, comparatively low cost.

Dr "Skip" Rizzo, Director of Medical Virtual Reality at USC, has applied this to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD) by developing an application called Bravemind for use with military personnel.

Similarly, pain relief has received a lot of focus with AppliedVR and DeepStreamVR developing applications aiming to reduce pain for patients.

Research has shown that virtual therapy can be so effective that it reduces pain by 50% to 90% in clinical trials (Infinite Reality).

Could VR make us more anxious?

VR experiences aren't always full of calming meditative visualisations and abstract worlds designed to give you a metaphorical cuddle.

Breaking Forth, recently ran a well-received, sold-out showing of their new groundbreaking film "CTRL". It's one of the first extended narrative VR pieces open to the public but covers some sensitive topics, unexpectedly, which could have a very lasting impact given the enhanced immersion.

More overtly and easier to avoid are the vast array of horror experiences hitting the market which can create pretty visceral reactions.

Lastly, there is the more philosophical concern that as VR becomes more mainstream and realistic, people will become addicted and permanently detached from reality.

This is a problem already, particularly in Asian cultures where e-gaming is even more prolific. This was demonstrated most dramatically by the man who collapsed and died in an internet cafe after playing an online game for 3 days straight.

So what does this all mean?

The best place for VR to start tackling our anxiety is as a targeted therapeutic tool.
Delivered in a controlled clinical setting, with carefully produced experiences the incredible benefits are already being demonstrated.

These are only likely to improve, as the tech gets better.

For everyday use, VR could provide new ways to grab that moment of relief from anxiety. A sort of virtual hot bubble bath.

Perhaps it could also make it easier for people to develop improved habits and practice activities such as meditation more regularly.

But as with all of VR right now, we need to recognise the consequences of where this new technology could take us.

When moments of immersion become sustained escapism we have to start talking in terms of addiction rather than treatment.

And then we'll have another anxiety disorder to add to the list.

I'd love to hear what you think.
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