Virtual reality a revolutionary way to treat anxiety, depression: Research

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Patients suffering with anxiety and depression may benefit from treatment which incorporates virtual reality (VR), according to new research.

Mental health conditions pose a major challenge to global health care providers, with the World Health Organization (WHO) predicting that by 2030, conditions such as anxiety and depression will be the leading cause of disease burden worldwide.

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The recent COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened these pre-existing conditions, the WHO has said.

However, new research published in JMIR Mental Health has found that VR can be used effectively to augment and enhance traditional treatment methods, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy.

They said the efficiency of using VR content for treating depression lies in the ability of the technology to create situations that will teach patients how to manage their thoughts, feelings and reactions to things that trigger depressive or anxiety episodes.

Tests can also be conducted to test responses to situations a patient has never experienced but could potentially face.

Patients, for example, can be trained to change or alter their reactions to real-life situations to change the outcome from a negative to a positive one.

The recent study reviewed articles published between 2017 to 2021 related to virtual reality in the treatment of mental health issues and found 369 articles in this subject area, which were narrowed down to 34 clinical studies.

Most of these studies combined cognitive behavioral therapy, a standard method of treating anxiety, with virtual reality immersive environments and simulations.

Based on this recent review of research, VR research has primarily focused on anxiety, and there is less research on the effectiveness and use of VR in depression.

Virtual reality uses computer modeling and simulation so that people can interact with realistic 3D visual environments as well as other senses through interfaces like sensory gloves. Virtual reality in health care entered the scene in the early 2000s with the use of a VR gaming system SnowWorld which was found to be able to reduce pain levels in burn wound care.

Virtual reality combined with cognitive behavioral therapy has been effective in the treatment of social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, as well as treatment for specific fears such as public speaking anxiety, exam anxiety, and driving-related anxiety.

The Duke University Virtual Reality Treatment Program, for example, uses VR content to treat anxiety disorders related to the fears of flying, public speaking and heights.

VR exposure therapy

The most common VR intervention was VR exposure therapy (VRET). Virtual reality exposure therapy is a behavioral method in which participants are deliberately shown a feared object or anxiety-provoking experience in a simulated environment.

VRET has been useful to treat social anxiety and public speaking anxiety.

The theory is that gradual and repeated exposure to this triggering simulated environment can reduce anxiety over time.

The study’s authors noted that virtual reality provides a useful way for participants to experience safely and confidentially a simulated environment and gives people a chance to work directly with therapists in real time.

For example, people with social anxiety were placed in a virtual workplace or job interview or people with a fear of public speaking were placed in a virtual classroom or conference room.

Virtual reality technology can also enhance the possibilities of music therapy.

One study placed participants in a virtual performance hall where they could sing and perform. Another study used VR to enhance art therapy by using a virtual painting program.

VR has also been used to conduct healthy games and exercises and to provide neurofeedback and biofeedback.

“As virtual reality technology continues to expand and develop, it will hopefully become more accessible to everyone,” said the authors. “Virtual reality is a useful and novel way to enhance and make more efficient traditional forms of treatment for of anxiety and depression.

“Most studies we reviewed demonstrated the use of VR to be effective for supporting the treatment of anxiety or depression in a range of settings and recommended its potential as a tool for use in a clinical environment.”

Anxiety disorders cost global economy $1 trillion

The WHO has also estimated that anxiety disorders have cost the global economy approximately US $1 trillion per year in lost productivity costs.

Between 75 percent and 85 percent of people with mental disorders remain untreated in low-income countries, with almost one million people taking their lives each year.

In addition, according to the WHO, one in 13 people is affected by anxiety worldwide, with specific phobias, major depressive disorders, and social phobias being the most common.

Barriers to effective care include a lack of resources, lack of trained health care providers, and social stigma associated with mental disorders.

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