a woman using a VR mask taking part in virtual reality therapy

Benefits of virtual reality therapy

Mental illnesses and brain disorders affect 450 million people worldwide and are among the leading causes of ill-health and disability.1 While many treatments, therapies, and supplements are available and accessible, almost two-thirds of those struggling will never actively seek help due to stigma, discrimination, or lack of knowledge from mental health care providers. Virtual reality therapy, also known as virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET), has been a therapists’ tool in treating mental disorders since 1989.2 However, due to cost and technology limitations, VERT was not widely available until recent years.3 Thanks to technological advances, the cost of software and hardware is lower, while the quantity and quality of knowledge have increased.4

What is virtual reality therapy?

VRET allows users to be exposed to their fears and phobias in a controlled setting through a computer-generated environment.

The process can help provide an experience where people may have difficulty imagining events (e.g. someone with agoraphobia visualising leaving the house) or are too phobic to experience the events in real-time (e.g. physically leaving the house).

By creating a parallel reality, VRET takes away the fear or embarrassment of real-world experience. Not only this, but some VR systems can also change based on the reactions of users and tailor the experience to them.

VRET has been to be especially useful for those who suffer from phobias, anxiety disorders, PTSD, and OCD.6

The benefits of virtual reality therapy

Because it can expose users to stimuli in a gradual, controlled environment, VRET offers the below benefits beyond traditional treatments:7

  • Treatment plans can be tailored specifically to the needs of patients as a therapist can personalise the VR content based on the patient’s reactions.

  • Patients still have a sense of control as they are not pushed into a real-world setting or required to imagine what can feel impossible or too frightening. Greater control over their exposure can help develop a personal treatment plan.

  • There is no need for drugs.

  • Provides a safe training environment for both clinicians and patients, as it allows the therapist to see what the patient sees in a virtual environment.

  • Lowers the costs associated with other treatments as it reduces the time commitment to supporting and monitoring patients through real-world settings.8

  • Treatment can continue at home using VR apps, promoting longer-term use of the treatment plans.

Virtual reality therapy will not wholly replace all therapies and treatments available for mental illness, and it does have its limitations. These include cybersickness and the lack of virtual environments for some anxiety disorders. Despite this, VR therapy is becoming increasingly more affordable and offers an alternative to standard treatments, many of which have drawbacks of their own.

Last updated: 21 April 2020

ConditionsMental HealthMind & BodyPsychology