Virtual Reality Therapy—Technology Fail or Success?

What an alternate reality does in therapy.

Posted Apr 23, 2018

There's an episode of the popular Netflix series Black Mirror called San Junipero (spoiler alert) where the characters on the show are in an alternate reality. They are versions of themselves that they imagine they would like to be, younger, more vibrant and living in an idyllic city with exciting attractions and clubs. This town, San Junipero, serves a purpose which I won't reveal here. You'll just have to watch the episode to find out. However, the point I'm making is that the characters achieve therapeutic release by acting out their fantasies in this alternate universe.  

 David Dettmann/Netflix
Source: Photo: David Dettmann/Netflix

When I first learned about virtual reality therapy, I thought about San Junipero. This form of treatment uses technology to place clients into a virtual environment where they're exposed to stimuli that cause them fear or anxiety. It resembles exposure therapy in some ways because the theory is that the person faced head-on with uncomfortable or even frightening situations. Once they confront their fears, they are able to heal from them. 

Albert "Skip" Rizzo, PhD, is the director for medical virtual reality at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies. Dr. Rizzo says that VR Therapy is designed to take exposure therapy to the next level. If you have a fear of spiders, for example, you can certainly imagine what it's like to be around a spider, or in VR Therapy you are put face-to-face with a spider and have to confront it. Dr. Rizzo says: "if we can put them (patients) in simulations that mimic or resemble some of their traumatic experiences and do it in a gradual, yet progressive hierarchical fashion, then it really is well-matched to what the need of the clinical approach is." Taking exposure therapy a step further and helping clients face their fears is essential to healing through VR Therapy. 

Virtual Reality Therapy can work together with CBT

Virtual Reality Therapy and CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) are two modalities of treatment that can be used together in order to assist clients to get over phobias. Techniques include prolonged exposure to stimuli that cause the client to feel unpleasant and helping the patient to substitute negative thoughts patterns with productive ones. If a client is afraid to ride the train, they're put into an environment where they are forced to ride the train. They then confront their fears regarding the train and begin to address them. These confrontations occur in the virtual reality as opposed to at the real train station. The person's therapist is present and they're able to be supportive through their exposure process. 

Healing through Virtual Reality Therapy is possible

If the therapist and client are aware of the client's triggers, VR therapy can be useful for treating trauma or clients that have PTSD. If the therapist notices that their client is in obvious distress, then they can take adequate precautions and stop the treatment. With any form of therapy, it's important to check in with your client to see if they are coping with what's happening in session. 

Would I try Virtual Reality Therapy

Sure, I would give this sort of therapy a shot. If it was something that I felt could help me heal from my fears or pain. There is something daunting about going into an unknown alternate reality not knowing what to expect. But if you think about it, life is sort of like that. You don't know what to expect from one day to the next. You could turn the corner and meet the love of your life. You might walk into a party and meet your future business partner. You never know what's around the corner. In Virtual Reality Therapy, and facing your fears in a simulated universe could help me. I'm open to anything that could help me grow and be less anxious