The way we speak about “being healthy” today sounds slightly different than how it was perceived in the past. Oftentimes, “healthiness” was exclusively associated with fitness, strength, and aesthetics only. What you ate and how much you exercised supposedly determined the entirety of your wellness. However, we know very well that this view of health enunciates only part of the story. Today, the scope has widened, and rightfully so, to include mental health.
A change in our collective perception of health isn’t the only paradigm shift that we’re observing this century. Technological innovations have been launching in multiple industries, and the health industry is no exception. The development of virtual reality (VR) tech, paired with a growing emphasis on maintaining a holistically healthy lifestyle, has given rise to a variety of medical VR applications for both mental and physical health. Although still in its infancy, the impacts of VR therapy for patients suffering from a range of health issues looks promising.
VR Therapy Impact on Mental Health
Looking to balance its capability of helping patients on the other side of the health spectrum, VR is making its mark on mental health.
Anxiety is a mental health issue plaguing a significant portion of the human population, especially in the United States. Most observable in teens, a deepening pressure to succeed and live a certain lifestyle because of comparison to others on social media is a major anxiety driver. Constantly feeling like you’ll embarrass yourself in front of others, a pressing unease in crowded settings or any hindrance to perform day to day tasks as a result of social pressure are all symptoms of anxiety. Prior to the emergence of VRET, the VR version of exposure therapy whereby individuals are required to confront the source of their anxiety, patients would visit therapists and describe their emotional troubles in the past tense.
With the use of VR, therapists can engage patients in real-time simulations that emulate the fears they speak about, and adjust for intensity in the process. The value here is that the therapist and the patient can both be present in the fear-inducing situation at the same time, allowing for immediate and effective confrontation and discussion of how to overcome that fear. Additionally, VRET is often more acceptable to patients than imaginal or in vivo (having the patient directly experience the anxiety provoking stimuli) exposure therapy.
New research supports VR’s ability to overcome stress and reduce depression in patients. Currently, virtual reality therapy is showing potential to promote distress management, mood enhancement and stress relief. Because depression patients often lack the motivation to step outside their familiar home environments, virtual reality recreates any setting imaginable for the user. For example, patients can dive into coral reefs, watch a sports game, or take a pleasant stroll through the forest to the music of a soft piano melody from wherever they’re located.
A study aimed to uncover the effects of virtual reality on mental wellness, reports an overall positive impact of using VR to treat patients. The use of the technology yielded lower stress levels as a result of lower heart rate and higher skin temperature. Patients also reported higher levels of relaxation. Because the study tested patients using a variety of immersive technologies, future studies looking at which specific aspects of VR benefits patients are yet to be done. Regardless, VR is currently being used and monitored for patient feedback.
Shifting the focus to our youth, VR tech can also aid students who display problems in the classroom due to being plagued with anxiety when having to perform tasks in front of peers. Other students who are stressed due to highly competitive education systems may also benefit from the use of VR to reduce stress. Additionally, student athletes who need support to mentally unwind and prepare for games may also turn to VR as a collaborative platform to connect with sport psychologists.