By: Page Turner, C.Ht.
The budding virtual reality market is already sweeping industrial, gaming and entertainment applications. Given the revolutionary empathetic experience of immersive technology, it is also enthusiastically being applied and studied for treatment of phobias, anxiety disorders, and PTSD. In 3d modeling programs, therapists oversee the programming and control social stimuli within the virtual world, tailoring the experience to the subject’s needs.
Phobias and PTSD
A National Institute of Medical Health study of over 9000 Americans found that phobias afflict nearly 18.1% of the population. Despite the frequency of this psychological plague, current methods are still not fully sufficient to treat the more severe cases of phobia. The prevailing method of Systematic desensitization, according to the Guide to the Practice of Psychology, has a few major problems: subjects don’t imagine their fears vividly enough, and therapists are unable to tailor situations to scare a subject just enough to desensitize without making the problem worse.
Virtual reality solves both of these issues. Computer graphics (CG) have the capability to construct intimately vivid worlds, and they can be tailored to a virtually infinite scale. This allows psychologists to create progressive, customized therapies that dramatically reduce phobic reactions by desensitizing the subject effectively. This method is proven in peer-reviewed research: a meta-analysis of 24 studies on the effectiveness of virtual reality therapy for treating social phobias found that it was consistently more potent than conventional therapy. Ironically, this artificial activity was found to be especially successful in reducing fear of bodily activities such as falling – perhaps because these activities are more difficult to simulate in the real world.
Excessive self-criticism – a massive factor in depression - can be overcome by therapy in digital worlds. In this ingenious experiment, female undergraduates were first placed in a virtual world in which they comforted a crying child with extremely low-self esteem. Then, they went through the same situation again – this time from the perspective of the child, seeing and hearing themselves comfort themselves. This was found to increase self-compassion by 11.2% and reduce self-criticism by 11.7%.
Mindfulness and Altruism
Several individual and occupational therapy demos are emerging and gaining attention. Floating Euphoria from AlteredScapes VR and Guided Meditation by the Cubicle Ninjas offer guided journies through blissful, symbolic landscapes.
Yana Pura, SoundSelf and Deep are among the many options for peaceful respite within VR.
This groundbreaking new method of transforming our psyches for the better has proven incredibly potent, but it also reflects something else: that the new digital worlds are changing us, rapidly and significantly, for better or worse. Just as in real life, if individuals experience beneficial situations, their personalities can be radically improved and their psychological ailments can be healed. On the other hand, in destructive environments, psychological sickness can be worsen. Let us hope that we use this new technology wisely.
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