Nearly one in five1 American adults will have a mental illness in any given year. To help ease the burden on the health system, medical professionals are looking at innovative ways to help sufferers.
Virtual reality (VR) is one example of an increasingly popular technology with many applications in mental health. From treating phobias to providing immersive research environments, modern psychologists are encouraged by its potential.
This guide explores the uses of VR in psychology along with the potential pitfalls that come with it. You may also find our article on VR applications in medicine helpful.
How is VR used in psychology?
Virtual reality has excellent potential in the field of psychology. It can assist with exposure therapy, body swapping, and stress reduction. It is also a valuable tool for research and collaboration, helping the field of psychology to advance.
1. Exposure therapy
Exposure therapy has been used since the 1950s2 to deal with phobias. It helps people deal with their automatic fear response by exposing them to their fear in a controlled environment. Over time, the patient may become desensitized to the danger.
VR therapy can be particularly useful in the treatment of phobias. Patients experience stimuli through a virtual environment, which allows them to confront their fears without actually being in danger.
Exposure therapy may effectively reduce phobias symptoms, such as fear of flying, heights, or public speaking.
2. Body swapping
There are a staggering 40 million adult Americans3 with an anxiety disorder, yet only 36.9% are receiving treatment. One way experts are looking to encourage people to seek help is with virtual reality. For some, the technology is less confronting.
Body swapping is an approach psychologists use to help with anxiety and depression. This technique can incorporate VR using these steps:
- A patient records themselves talking about their problem.
- They watch the video footage on a virtual headset and then respond with their own advice.
- The patient’s audio advice is paired with a virtual counselor, which then gets replayed to the patient.
Body swapping helps reinforce logical advice that the patient understands but has difficulty applying to their own situation. Virtual reality sessions will likely appeal to younger anxiety and depression sufferers, an over-represented demographic.
Watch the following video to better understand body swapping and other ways VR is assisting in psychology.
3. Stress reduction
Living in a fast-paced world can result in an overstimulated stress response. While this is okay in small doses, everyday stress should be addressed.
Therapists use virtual reality programs to create calming and soothing environments such as beaches or mountain tops where patients can relax.
Research has found virtual reality technology is a promising tool for reducing stress levels and coping with anxiety3. This is encouraging for people who don’t consider their problems big enough to seek professional help. While highly stressed individuals may not visit a clinic, they may be more open to a therapeutic session at home with a VR set.
4. Enhancing patient experiences
VR can enhance patient experiences during therapy sessions. Talking about a difficult experience can help heal wounds but immersing them in the root cause of the problem can take a session to a new level. It helps patients process their emotions more deeply and gain insight into how they react to certain stimuli and situations.
Virtual reality has significant potential to help post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) sufferers. Instead of traditional cognitive behavior therapies, some therapists incorporate virtual reality into their approach. It allows patients to safely relive traumatic or stressful events in a controlled manner which can help them process and manage their anxiety more effectively. This strategy is highly beneficial for helping police officers and military personnel.
5. Interpersonal skills training
Virtual environments make an excellent platform for teaching social skills such as communication, negotiation, and empathy. These skills are integral components in developing healthy relationships with others, both professionally and personally.
VR may also help individuals who struggle with interpersonal interactions due to underlying issues such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Clinicians can offer patients simulated interaction with people in a less threatening environment.
In child therapy, there is scope for gamifying social play to make learning more fun.
6. Addiction treatment
VR can also treat addictions such as alcohol or drug abuse. In one study, researchers found that participants who underwent VR therapy reported lower cravings than those in the control group.
7. Brain training
VR technology is helpful for cognitive training, employing exercises designed to improve memory, concentration, and problem-solving abilities.
Virtual reality games can help improve cognitive performance among healthy individuals and those with mild cognitive impairments. They may provide new avenues for treating conditions such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
8. Facilitating group therapy
Virtual reality can play a vital role in facilitating group therapy sessions. It allows multiple individuals to come together and discuss their problems remotely. These digital meetups will have enormous implications for those with accessibility restrictions and people living in remote areas.
While sessions led by a facilitator are helpful, there is also greater scope for informal family therapy sessions. Virtual group get-togethers to talk about a past tragic event are much easier for families living far apart. In a digital world, it may be easier for some to open up about their feelings.
Psychologists, counselors, and other health care providers can also benefit from VR tech. Inexperienced workers can practice techniques virtually with computer-generated patients before working in the real world. Trainees can build confidence, knowing that any “rookie errors” won’t have repercussions.
Professional collaboration between experienced psychologists from different countries is much easier with VR. While nothing will replace conferences where people meet in person, virtual meetings further enhance knowledge transfer.
10. Personality tests
Virtual reality can also help assess personality traits such as sociability or impulsivity. Participants are immersed in a 3D environment with different stimuli, like human faces or symbols.
Practitioners may get a more accurate assessment of how someone behaves socially compared to traditional 2D evaluations, which are more limiting.
11. Research tool
In addition to its therapeutic applications, VR technology can also serve as an advanced research tool within psychology studies. By creating realistic simulations, researchers can closely mimic real-life scenarios.
For instance, researchers studying complex decision-making processes may benefit from creating simulated environments with multiple variables. This method would provide more reliable results compared to traditional methods that may lack realism.
12. Diagnosing conditions
VR can help diagnose mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders and depression.
By immersing patients in specific scenarios that are triggers for certain mental health issues, clinicians can observe how their behavior changes when presented with such stimuli.
This process allows practitioners to make more accurate diagnoses than relying on traditional methods alone.
Is anxiety a problem in the United States?
Anxiety disorders are common in the United States, and the numbers continue to rise. Below are some current numbers showing the ways people are affected.
- Specific phobias: 19.3 million
- Social anxiety disorder: 15 million
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): 6.8 million
- Panic disorder: 6 million
- PTSD: 7.7 million
Disadvantages of virtual Reality in psychology
Side effects: VR is known to cause motion sickness in some users, which may further complicate the sufferer’s condition. As technology improves, this issue will likely be resolved.
High startup costs: Implementing VR into psychology practices may be cost prohibitive. Health administrators should consider the initial cost of hardware, such as goggles and handsets, and ongoing software licenses and training costs.
Lack of meaningful interaction: VR won’t appeal to everyone. If people go through the motions without engaging in meaningful conversations or activities, their experience may not provide measurable progress.
Too much visual focus: While visuals are essential to recovery, they shouldn’t be the only thing considered when creating an immersive experience. Audio design can greatly enhance what someone sees within virtual reality and make them feel like they are genuinely interacting with their environment instead of just passively looking at something on a screen.
Ethical considerations: There are ethical considerations associated with using virtual reality technologies. These include issues such as privacy and confidentiality concerns related to collecting data.
Inappropriate content: Content exposure is another concern, as psychologists have less control over what their patients see. Particularly vulnerable populations such as children may be exposed to disturbing content without establishing proper safeguards.
Virtual reality has vast potential applications within psychology practices and mental health research. Therapeutic tools like phobia treatment programs and personality tests are already in use.
Some tools and techniques require improvement, and this area of medicine is still experimental. However, the mental health field can expect continued advancement in the coming years. Advanced hardware and innovative software developers will pave the way for new treatments, therapies, and insights into human behavior.
Virtual reality is unlikely ever to replace psychologists. It is a field that is highly interpersonal, requiring empathy and a “sixth sense” backed up by peer-reviewed scientific research. Instead, VR will provide practitioners with an exciting set of tools to help them make better decisions and provide better care for their patients.