Could Virtual Reality Help Reduce Anxiety?
The Debrief: Scientists believe virtual reality could be the next treatment to help tackle mental health.
Almost a quarter of us are said to be suffering from a mental illness at any given point, with Mind estimating that 5.9 out of 100 people experience generalised anxiety.
Despite increasing social awareness of mental health, it’s estimated that only 30% of anxiety sufferers seek treatment. With an increasingly varied selection of therapies becoming available, a programme developed by clinical psychologist Dr Daniel Freeman hopes to offer virtual reality as a non-threatening form of treatment.
Freeman explained to the BBC: ‘People know it's not real so they try things they've not done before or for a long time, but the mind and body does behave as if it's in the real world. What they are doing is learning a new memory.’
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The technology was tested on those suffering from extreme phobias, such as acrophobia (fear of heights), used virtual reality to tackle the root of their anxiety. Standing at a height of 10 floors, participants reached out to pick fruit from a tree branch with just a low barrier for protection.
Another situation was tested where participants experienced a simulated therapist’s office. Using a ‘body swapping’ technique, patients explain their conditions to a virtual therapist before swapping places to listen back to their problems and counsel themselves.
One participant, who reported that their anxiety made them ‘very tense and jumpy’ prior to the study, said that the virtual treatment had had a ‘powerful effect’ and had allowed her to do things she would not have previously done.
The software is being developed by computer scientist Mel Slater, who believes that ‘[virtual reality] could be a stopgap before [patients] see a real therapist.’
Headsets were also used to help manage anxiety caused by medical procedures. Patients undergoing blood tests and anaesthetic at Los Angeles’ Children’s Hospital experienced ‘especially immersive virtual reality’ to draw their attention away from a stressful environment and divert it to a ‘virtual world’.
Patients experiencing virtual reality during their procedures reported a less stressful experience than those without the technology.
Freeman says he believes ‘to radically increase the numbers of psychological treatments, we're going to need technologies like VR' that can be used at home With mental health services being overwhelmed by ‘soaring demand’, virtual reality could be an additional service to take pressure off GPs and tackle mental illness.
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