Virtual reality (VR) therapy uses a computer-simulated world as a treatment tool. A person might use it to practice new skills, face a fear in a safe environment, or become more confident in social interactions.
VR therapy does not replace standard treatments for mental health conditions. Instead, most clinicians use it as an additional treatment.
A number of studies have found that virtual reality therapy can be effective for managing various mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and phobias.
Read on to learn more about VR therapy.
VR therapy uses virtual worlds and scenarios as a therapeutic tool. A person may wear a headset or use a device to immerse themselves in the virtual world and interact with it.
It is possible to simulate a wide variety of worlds and scenarios with VR, which makes it useful for constructing situations that are hard to recreate in real life or that could be too scary or risky.
Therapists may use VR to allow clients to practice real-life challenges, revisit a past event, or help a person confront their fears in a controlled environment.
Researchers published the first paper on VR therapy over 25 years ago, but as the technology has improved, interest in this therapeutic tool has increased.
VR therapy works by allowing people to act out, practice, or revisit situations in a safe environment. This may:
- teach skills
- reduce fears
- improve confidence
- help process something that happened in the past
By removing real-world risks, VR can also make something frightening feel more manageable. For example, a person with a phobia may not be ready to confront it in reality. Interacting with a simulation in VR may help them gradually become accustomed to the object of their fear and learn it is not a threat.
In this way, VR may help bridge the gap between therapy and the real world.
Therapists originally used VR therapy to treat phobias, but over time, therapists have tried it for a variety of mental health conditions.
Therapists can use VR for exposure therapy, which is a mainstay of phobia treatment. It involves gradually exposing a person to what they fear in small, manageable steps with their consent.
People can do exposure therapy without VR, but sometimes, this is difficult to do. For example, a person with a fear of flying cannot fly on an airplane for a few seconds and work their way upward. Additionally, other phobias, such as a fear of wild animals, could put someone in danger if they try to interact with one.
VR expands the possibilities of exposure therapy. A 2022 systematic review of 18 articles found that this approach improved almost all types of specific phobias the research included, such as animal phobias and blood or injection phobias.
Exposure therapy can also help treat PTSD, but as with phobias, controlled exposure to a traumatic situation can be difficult and may not be safe.
A handful of studies suggest that VR therapy offers an alternative. For example, a 2019 review and meta-analysis of nine previous studies compared the effects of VR exposure therapy to no therapy.
In comparison to the participants who received no treatment, VR therapy reduced PTSD symptoms, and the benefits continued for at least 3 months after the treatment ended.
Social and emotional skills
A person can practice various social and emotional skills using VR therapy. For example, they might practice talking through a conflict with their partner or asking their boss for a raise. This allows them to safely test new skills while under the guidance of a therapist.
Anxiety and depression
- help people understand mental health
- help people visualize CBT techniques
- teach self-compassion
- simulate other therapies, such as gardening or animal-assisted therapy
A 2021 scoping review that assessed nine previous studies that combined VR with CBT found that it could benefit the treatment of anxiety and depression.
Some therapists send clients home with VR devices to supplement their therapy, and some companies offer home VR sets for self-care. Clients may rent these devices per week, depending on the device.
To try VR therapy, a person needs to find a licensed psychotherapist with access to a VR device. Search engines and therapist directories may help with this.
VR therapy may suit people who:
- have specific phobias or fears
- want to practice certain skills
- are not ready or able to experience certain situations in the real world
A number of companies offer home VR therapy that uses an app, allowing a person to set their own pace. However, this is not traditional psychotherapy and may not offer the same benefits.
A person should seek help when any mental health issue affects their relationships, quality of life, or well-being, especially if self-care has not improved their symptoms. This help could be via their doctor or any qualified therapist, whether or not they offer VR therapy.
It is especially important to seek help if a person has thoughts of suicide or self-harm.
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.
Virtual reality therapy involves using virtual reality to simulate different scenarios. This can help people learn new skills and face their fears in a safe environment. Initially, therapists used it for the treatment of phobias, but today, some therapists use it for a range of conditions.
VR can provide a controlled space to try things that could be overwhelming or risky in real life, making it useful for exposure therapy. However, as with any therapy, it is important to seek care from a licensed, experienced practitioner.