VR and Anxiety

First, what is social anxiety?

Social anxiety is one of the most common types of anxiety disorders in the world today. Social anxiety is a strong and complex mental condition that makes the human subject experience a constant fear of social situations.

Social anxiety is nothing new to psychologists. However current data suggest to a certain degree that the number of people sharing this same problem worldwide is higher than ever before. To put this into perspective

According to the US National Institute of Mental Health, about 12% of American adults have had to cope with social anxiety at some point in their life.

I’m one of them.

I was a little shy girl but I had a really happy childhood all the way through. Of course, I owe this to my lovely parents. I remember I could engage with other children and get on well with them. However, my life took a bad turn as I got into school especially into high school. At that time I had to extensively engage with new people and somehow I didn’t manage to stand that much social engagement.I started to have panic attacks and reject every possible social situation because I had this strong fear of getting negatively judged and embarrassed. For years I fooled myself into believing that I was somehow different and there was nothing I could do to overcome it. But then after high school came to an end I got to the point I almost collapsed mentally and I finally decided to seek help from a therapist. It was then that I understood that my mental health condition had a name: SOCIAL ANXIETY.

I took a six-month anxiety therapy course and retook it after around a year and a half. Of course, I made some progress but I still didn’t feel like I came a long way. Around two years ago I read an insightful article about  JungeRömer ’s presentation in a VR workshop in Berlin about the potential future application of VR in SAD therapies. I did then some online research and I noticed this topic had already gained some terrain in research. Following this exciting reveal to myself I decided to study VR and its application in treating Social Anxiety.

 

How Can VR Be Used To Treat Social Anxiety?

First, for the sake of information

WHAT IS VR?

VR is a modern technology used to simulate real-life situations in a way it almost feel real. What it started as a fancy technology for entertainment turned to have a wide application in numerous areas, including SOCIAL ANXIETY.

 

At a large scale, there are two main Social Anxiety therapy types

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Exposure Therapy

Sometimes there is a combination of two like in my personal case.

For me, the first part was pretty good. In the second part, however, I faced a lot of difficulties.  Oftentimes, exposing myself to uncomfortable social situations had a countereffect leading oftentimes to more social anxiety. From my experience with other people who face this mental disorder, I can say this is a common problem in exposure therapies.

This is when VR comes into play.

VR technology can help a human subject engage in a situation that triggers social anxiety without having to experience it in real life. In 2013 there was a study conducted which concluded that the effect of VR simulations of social situations had the same effect on humans as the same social situations in real life. That is because certain parts of the brain of a social anxiety patient that get activated in a VR simulation are the same as that if the experience was real.

The question is then: What is the advantage of using VR instead of involving real-life social situations?

Remember, the experience feels the same but in the case of VR simulations, you still have control over it. In many real-life situations, not everything may go as planned and there times you’d prefer to leave and try it later. But in real life, you cannot always do this. For instance,  I went once to talk to a cashier in a grocery and I felt like I was not yet ready for that step in the therapy and I wanted to leave it. But it was not that simple. I couldn’t just leave because I would embarrass myself.

On the other hand, when using VR technology whenever you feel like you’re beyond your far limits you can stop it.

More on Advantages Of VR Compared To Traditional SAD Therapies

Smooth exposure – The exposure part of SAD therapies is done in steps. The therapist makes a customizable list of social situations to be exposed to starting from those which provoke a mild anxiety to the most extreme ones. Sometimes these lists have to be modified because they turn not to be a perfect fit for the human subject. Using VR technology one can design and modify a situation to the tiniest details account for a very smooth exposure. Moreover when one faces some similar situations in real life after having experienced it through VR goggles they feel much comfortable.

Customizability –  Social anxiety is a complex mental health condition and very individual. It is hard to make exposure therapies that are applicable to everyone. One can easily model every possible situation that triggers social anxiety in every possible thought setting. This is very important for slow and proper progress during therapy.

Control Over Situation – In contrast to real-life situations whenever the therapist or the subject decides to leave the situation and go for another one they can freely do it without the risk of triggering more social anxiety.

Personal treatment – VR has the potential to make everyone treat their SAD independently. For many people, traditional therapies don’t have long-lasting effects and they might have to retake therapy courses over and over.

There is one more important advantage that became particularly obvious in this actual pandemic situation in the world. By using VR headsets one could complete their social anxiety therapy and all of it not at the cost of the effect of the therapy.

The Future of VR Social Anxiety Therapies

We don’t know how things will exactly develop in this area. However, we can be excited about what is going to happen. It might take some time for this approach of treating social anxiety and other mental disorders to be adopted by the traditional medical system, but we’re clearly going that way. Although this new technology is not yet the norm there are many cases where this technology is already applied. For instance, a British VR startup Oxford VR developed a VR-based social anxiety therapy in 2017. The NHS itself deployed later this innovative therapy as part of their Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) initiative followed by other private health care providers in the UK. Today we see a lot of medical institutions and third-party organizations trying to exploit VR potential and take advantage of it in the context of medical use. To conclude, we can say that the day when the doctors will prescribe VR headsets instead of anti-depressants is not that far.

Written by Emma Ashton

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