Virtual Reality Might Help Us Treat Anxiety
We live in a modern society in which people are very aware of and concerned about their healthcare. We know what kind of care we want and expect, we know what our insurance costs and what it covers, and we actually tend to talk about it all quite a bit. One thing we don’t discuss adequately however is mental health – even when it comes to fairly common conditions like anxiety.
According to the American Psychology Association, anxiety is more common than most might guess. Adding up percentages of people who suffer from anxiety in different forms, the APA estimates that about 22-25 percent of adults have some form of clinical anxiety. This can take the form of a specific phobia, social anxiety, susceptibility to panic, or various other specific issues. The point, however, is that anxiety as a condition, rather than just a temporary state, is quite common. And it often goes unaddressed and untreated.
This could be changing in the near future, and for a somewhat unexpected reason. We’re in the very early stages of this development, but there is increasing talk that virtual reality might be providing professional doctors and psychiatrists with new ways to help patients deal with and potentially overcome anxiety.
If that seems like something of a melodramatic possibility, it’s worth thinking about how quickly VR has evolved to where it is today. That is to say, once we started hearing about VR and what it might help us do, the possibilities increased and the actual experiences arrived. One day we were talking about it as the next big thing, and then, suddenly, it was upon us.
In perhaps the clearest example, casino entertainment is evolving like a microcosm of gaming over the last two decades. After migrating to the internet, casinos started experimenting with better graphics; only a few years ago 3D slots were referred to as an innovation; “live dealer” gaming soon followed, and now we’re seeing the first few poker games in virtual reality. We’ve seen smaller but equally swift evolutions in other games as well. Shooters, for instance, have been among the most popular console games for several years now. They moved to VR and were thought to be difficult for the format, but in the past six months or so some new ones have earned rave reviews.
This is not to transition into the same old discussion about VR gaming – rather to point out how quickly this relatively new technology can help ideas evolve. Sometimes it’s proven to be just a matter of months before an idea or a potential concept becomes a reality, and is then improved upon. It may just be the most remarkable thing about the whole “VR wave” we appear to be in the midst of these days. And who’s to say treatments for anxiety (and other mental conditions for that matter) shouldn’t work similarly?
This is actually already being discussed fairly commonly on the internet – and not just by hopeful VR proponents or tech enthusiasts. For one example, the site Science Node ran a thoroughly convincing article proposing that VR can help patients relieve anxiety disorders.
The basic thesis is that exposure therapy is already a fairly common way to tackle anxiety disorders. That is to say, therapists seek to “expose” patients to whatever might cause them anxiety – be it large crowds, loud noises, or spiders – and talk them through coping. This can be effective, but it can also be traumatic in and of itself – often because the therapist isn’t actually there during exposure. Exposure can work more through assignments. VR can solve that disconnect by allowing developers to create exposure-based programs. With these programs therapists can more directly guide exposure therapy and actually sit with patients who are experiencing simulations of anxiety-inducing conditions. It’s a situation that feels safer, but in ways no less real, to the patient.
It’s largely an idea at this point, but it is being tried, and as VR continues to evolve, it will likely be improved upon fairly drastically. As stated, VR can help new ideas evolve very quickly, which means when there’s a new concept for an application, it can become a usable program in no time. It’s easy to imagine that some therapists will be hesitant to get on board with this idea, but those who want to try it will likely be able to very soon, if they’re not already. And the effects might just change how we think about treating many forms of anxiety.