Using Virtual Reality Technology to treat Anxiety Disorders

Virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET)  has been discovered to be a potential means of treating a variety of disorders (Donnelly 2021). In recent studies, experts found that VRET effectively treats most phobias, social anxiety disorder (SAD), eating disorders, panic disorder with and without agoraphobia, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Maples-Keller, 2017).

VRET – one therapy, many names

Other names for VRET include virtual reality immersion therapy, computerized cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), and simulation therapy. Virtual reality exposure therapy uses technology as an option for exposure therapy.

What is exposure therapy?

Exposure therapy is a standard treatment for anxiety disorders. It is used with cognitive-behavioral therapies, which teach strategies for combating irrational thoughts that precipitate anxiety. Participants view anxiety-producing situations during exposure therapy. Repeated exposure leads to better coping skills and reduction of stress.

What is virtual reality exposure therapy?

Virtual reality exposure therapy is a technology-aided exposure treatment. If you have ever been to a theme park that offers multimedia experiences, you have used similar technology.

A computer program generates a situation that the user considers anxiety-provoking in real life. For example, a person afraid of flying may use a program that replicates getting on an airplane.

Users navigate through the virtual situation to gain confidence and coping skills in real life.

Equipment used during virtual reality exposure therapy

Some programs use a simple computer setup. You may even be able to access the program via your smartphone.

You wear special goggles that immerse you in the experience. Motion sensors and gyroscopes monitor the position of your body and the degree of distress you experience. Your pulse and breathing rates are monitored throughout the process using biofeedback technology.

How does VRET work?

Here is an example. James has social anxiety disorder. He uses specialized goggles, a computer program, and biofeedback monitoring devices to prepare himself for an upcoming social engagement. James does the initial sessions with his therapist, but he also practices independently. James or the therapist can stop the program when James feels too uncomfortable.

The technology guides James as he considers attending the event, then it helps him envision getting ready for the outing. Next, he pictures himself traveling to the event, then imagines being at it. James can replay the practice steps as often as needed until he can see himself successfully at the event.

Advantages of virtual reality exposure therapy

Virtual reality exposure therapy offers many advantages.

  • It provides you with opportunities to prepare for stress-producing situations at your own pace.
  • You can practice more often than conventional exposure therapy, leading to more significant, quicker success.
  • You don’t necessarily need a support person or therapist at your side when using virtual exposure therapy. Independent practice is valuable if you don’t have the option of working with a therapist as often as you would like or if you don’t have a support person to guide you throughout the exposure therapy process.
  • The therapy can limit the cost and time it takes to attend treatment sessions.
  • You can stop the program at any time. You have total control over the experience, which is empowering.
  • You can remind yourself that the program is simply computer generated and not areal stressful experience.
  • Programs can be customized to meet your needs.
  • VRET is effective for children and adults.
  • Decades of research and development prove that VRET is effective and safe.

Disadvantages of virtual reality exposure therapy

  • You still need to pay for therapy sessions.
  • Some programs use expensive equipment, which can be a barrier to its use; however, the savings for therapy sessions can easily offset that cost.
  • Some people may feel uncomfortable using virtual technology instead of a person to guide them throughout exposure therapy.
  • Some phobias respond better to conventional exposure therapy; however, research indicates that virtual reality exposure therapy treatment is as effective as standard exposure therapy.
  • It is not widely available.
  • It is not reimbursable by all insurance providers.
  • Some individuals feel nauseous or dizzy when using the equipment for prolonged periods.

VRET products

Products are typically bought or leased by health care professionals or organizations, not the public. There are programs used at health care facilities for children, teens, and veterans. Here are some leading virtual reality exposure therapy technology products that treat anxiety disorders:

Company Features
Oxford VR This system was designed and tested in cooperation with Oxford University. It is well researched. Top programs address social anxiety disorder and fear of heights. Participants work with a virtual coach.
Amelia Virtual Care Amelia Virtual Care offers programs for relaxation, phobias, social anxiety, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, sleep, and more. It offers therapists opportunities to work remotely with clients.
Nurture VR This program treats anxiety, stress, and fear experienced by pregnant women.  It is available for purchase by individuals for under 600$.


The outlook for virtual reality therapy

Virtual reality therapy is a safe, increasingly affordable treatment for various anxiety and other disorders. It was initially developed as a tool to treat veterans with a diagnosis of PTSD. The technology shows promise for diverse uses, including mental health, pain management, addiction therapies, and more. Research backs up its value for clinical use. The treatment is a viable option that may also help solve disparities in care across regional, economic, racial, and cultural differences.

It may be challenging to find a provider who offers virtual reality therapy. Check with leading medical centers, the American Psychiatric Association, and your local counselor for more information. Veterans may find help by contacting the Veterans Administration.




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