The term “virtual reality” was coined in the mid-1980s and was used in many industries including the Hollywood movie industry. Also, these days virtual reality technology is used throughout the medical sector. Virtual reality (VR) technologies use our senses to alter our perception and transport us to any world that we can imagine. Virtual Reality for Mental Health has been making breakthroughs in treating mental health disorders including posttraumatic stress disorder and is now being used by many treatment centers to help treat eating disorders and body dysmorphia. By making the real and the virtual worlds overlap, this technology allows individuals to navigate from one universe to another to better cope with traumatic or anxiety-provoking situations.

Virtual reality, eating disorders and body dysmorphia

Virtual reality (VT) technology works exceptionally well in the context of exposure techniques, where individuals are exposed to high-risk situations. Exposure therapy is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy in which the individual is exposed to the trigger or threat for a repeated number of times until the feared stimulus or response is eliminated. Exposing an individual to images of crowded malls or airports who becomes anxious in congested spaces is an example of imaginal exposure therapy. Over time this individual will become more comfortable with the image and will be able to venture into crowded areas without having this fear. In other words, when the fearful action or thought is repeated, virtual reality exposure therapy will allow the individual to develop resilience with regard to phobias, OCD, acute anxiety, addiction or eating disorders. In the case of a fear of flying, for example, the individual is immersed in an ultra-realistic situation that reproduces the experience of a traveler, from the arrival at the airport to the landing.

The strategy is the same for eating disorders: individuals with bulimia nervosa have to walk, virtually, between the shelves of a supermarket or open a refrigerator filled with products that could trigger binge eating; individuals with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) will have to walk through clothing stores, dressing rooms and in front of mirrors. Virtual reality also makes it possible to address one of the symptoms that constitute this category of disease: dysmorphophobia, meaning the condition that leads a person not to perceive herself as she is which is specially related to body dysmorphic disorder. In a fitting room, this individual sees her silhouette superimposed on the one she thinks she has, to highlight her different perception. The therapist can observe the clients’ thoughts and emotions during each of the silhouette transitions and devise a treatment plan to help guide the individual to establish a more healthy and loving view of their body.

Virtual reality and PTSD

Skip Rizzo, associate director for medical virtual reality at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies, has been working with the United States Army on ways to use Virtual Reality (VR) to treat soldiers’ posttraumatic stress disorder for over a decade. His system, “Bravemind,” initially funded by the Department of Defense in 2005, can accurately recreate an inciting incident in a war zone, like Iraq, to activate “extinction learning” which can deactivate a deep-seated “flight or fight response,” relieving fear and anxiety.

It should be noted that very little research has been conducted on diseases such as depression or bipolar disorder, whose symptoms are harder to identify and reproduce.