VR Therapy

My experience with virtual reality is very limited.  My brother switched from the Apple IPhone to the Samsung Galaxy in early December.  He did not particularly like Samsung or dislike Apple.  He just switched because Samsung would provide a free VR headset if he chose to switch smart phones.  When I visited my brother forChristmas, I was able to try his Samsung GEAR headset.  He set up a simulation where I sky dived and walked through a jungle.  I was not impressed to say the least, but I knew that I was experiencing a low-end product that barely captured the capabilities of VR.  I do believe that VR will


My experience was the opposite of this.

completely change the entertainment and gaming industries.  Humans want their entertainment experience to be as realistic as possible and VR can do this.  However, I ask you what other industries will VR affect and disrupt?  You may answer this by saying retail, education, advertising, and these all makes sense.  Did you include the mental health industry? If so, you are correct and it has been happening for over two decades.

Virtual reality has been used to treat mental illness for a long time now.  Max North was the person to coin the term virtual therapy.  In 1992, he began writing his dissertation on how virtual environments can treat psychological disorders.  Ralph Lamson was the first psychologist to experiment with VR therapy.  He suffered from acrophobia (fear of heights).  In 1994, Lamson used a VR device to simulate that he was on a flying carpet.  After repeated exposure to heights through the simulation, his phobia began to lessen.  He successfully treated his own acrophobia with the use of VR therapy.  Lamson conducted further studies on VR’s therapeutic benefits and published a book in 1997 titled Virtual Therapy.  He remains heavily involved in development and teaching of the VR therapy.  Many psychologist have expanded on the practice of VR therapy since North’s original publication and Lamson’s experiments.   Let’s take a look at two examples.

VR therapy has been proven to be effective in the treatment of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) patients.  Specifically, VR therapy has been successful in helping alleviate the post-traumatic symptoms that veterans experience when they return from war.  Using VR, veterans are able to navigate and interact with a simulation that is designed to trigger memories, flashbacks, and mental and physical reactions associated with Pvr-3TSD.  Similar to Lamson treatment of acrophobia, soldiers are gradually exposed to more of the simulation.  While they navigate the simulation, a trained clinician is present to talk with the patient about what he or she is experiencing.  The simulations are adaptable.  The clinician has the ability to add in events as the simulation progresses.  As the patient experiences certain stressors the clinician uses cognitive behavior therapy to educate the patient on what they are feeling and teach them coping strategies and skills to alleviate the stressors.  Over time, the patient develops their own “tools” that they can use in real life.  In the past, treating PTSD was very difficult because patients avoid reliving and imagining their traumatic experiences.  This is one of the primary symptoms of PTSD.   With VR, patients do not have to use their own imagination.  They are able to safely navigate through a trauma using a VR headset.

Virtual reality is also being used to help treat depression.  A recent study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry Open stated that VR therapy can reduce symptoms of depression by increasing feelings of self-compassion and lowering feelings self-criticism.  In the VR therapy sessions of the study, the patient would face a mirror that would reflect an image of their own avatar.  When the patient moved their body, the avatar would match the patient’s movements.  This allowed the patient to feel li56c4c4e31900002900377dd8ke they were actually in the avatar’s body.  Next, they were shown the avatar of a distressed child sitting in a chair across from them.  The patient is then advised to console the child.  When the patient speaks kind words, the child would progressively relax and calm down.  In the final step of the session, the patient embodied the avatar of the distressed child.  The simulation was replayed from the child’s eyes and the patient able to see the gestures and hear the words that they said as the adult avatar just minutes earlier.  The study had impressive results.  Patients who underwent the therapy showed reduced symptoms of depression and stated that they were less critical of themselves.  Dr. Chris Brewin, head author of the study, states, “By comforting the child and then hearing their own words back, patients are indirectly giving themselves compassion.”  Patients that suffer from depression have difficulty being compassionate to themselves.  This experiment demonstrated VR can be used to initiate statements of self-compassion leading to reduced feelings of self-criticism.  Conveniently, this treatment can be accessed remotely for people who do not want to see a therapist in person or feel stigma for receiving therapeutic services.

The examples above are just scratching the surface of how VR can treat mental illness.  What are your thoughts on this use of VR to treat mental illness and where do you see VR therapy in the future?


  1. Really interesting blog Joe. Like you, I my experience with VR has been very limited. We hear so much discussion about how VR will revolutionize the gaming industry, how it will enable traders to visualize stock performance, and how it will change the entertainment industry, it is really great to hear about some of the altruistic benefits of the technology.

    I was aware of some of the studies regarding phobias and war-related PTSDs, but I was not aware of the work in relation to depression. The British Journal of Psychiatry Open study seems really interesting and a logical application of the technology (provided it is used in tandem with mental health counseling professionals.

    Your blog led me to think about whether VR would be effective in helping patients with social anxiety – I wonder if it would be useful in envisioning the scenarios that can trigger social anxiety and practice cognitive behavior therapy approaches.

  2. Great post! I was not aware that VR was already being used for mental illness therapy. Indeed, VR has the potential to change different industries and not only gaming as we have heard before. Even children with disabilities could benefit from the use of VR, since specialists could create a special environment to develop their senses. Imagine people with high stress levels and high blood pressure which could use VR as a therapy method for relaxation. It would be interesting to see further research on the topic to see the effects on patients.

  3. alexisteixeiraa · ·

    This was a fascinating article to read and I really appreciate how you tied in multiple stories. I resonated with the fear of heights as i really dread being on airplanes sometimes and wonder if I would be more comfortable with if I were to use VR and simulate being in an airplane. I particularly found the British study to be interesting and quite believable. When we think of VR we think of the future and games and entertainment: all with the idea of fun in mind. This gives another side of it that shows how beneficial this technology can be.

  4. This is a really important topic to write about and I’m sure little people know about it. It’s great learning more about how technology can improve mental illness conditions, rather than hurt it (which is normally what we hear about). I wonder how VR will progress in this field– how widespread will this become? Clearly, the product itself is becoming more accessible to consumers so it is not a matter of obtaining VR, but proving that these techniques actually work in the long run. Thanks again for posting about this I think it was really helpful to learn about.

    Also, not sure if you are interested or have heard about this subject, but there have been studies showing how technology has helped people with autism and Aspergers become more comfortable with social interactions. It’s definitely a worthwhile subject to look into!

  5. Interesting to incorporate virtual reality and mental illness. I have read a lot about exposure therapy in the past for psychology classes and it seems like VR would be a great way to bring a scary experience (simulate being at a high altitude or placing someone near a virtual spider for arachnophobics). I have read studies, too, about people being able to disassociate from their own experiences and being able to give a friend better advice than they would give themselves in the same situation. It’s interesting reading about the similar concept put into VR that you described above. It will be neat to see how the mental health field will take VR therapy further in the future.

  6. Really interesting blog post. I too have tried a VR headset and laughed out loud reading your caption under the first picture. However, I think we will see the quality and realistic experiences of VR continuously improving. As for the take on VR helping people with mental illnesses, I had no idea it was being tested and used so effectively, and I really enjoyed your two examples. I do not have much knowledge about mental illnesses, but I do think VR could be a great way for children with mental illnesses or even people diagnosed right away to learn how to cope with and hopefully help treat them early on. I’m also curious to know how many times people with mental illnesses tend to use VR devices before seeing results. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Ciaran_Cleary · ·

    Thanks Joe, I felt the same way you did when I first tried VR. I think some of these beta versions or low-quality versions sometimes keep us from realizing that VR really is going to be big, and as you have shown, important. The idea of therapy using VR is awesome, and I think VR will hopefully be able to be a tool to fight mental illness. In general, I think there could be a lot more done for technology as a whole to impact therapy. I know there are some startups where therapists in their offtime will skype with people from all over and have appointments that way. I think that is brilliant and makes a lot more sense. People will certainly be more comfortable and of more ease just being at home doing these type of sessions. Cool article and it certainly will push me to think about the possibilities of VR.

  8. What a great post. Hadn’t really thought of VR for therapy, but it certainly makes alot of sense. I hope they’ll do more here. I think VR will make a huge breakthrough in adoption very soon, based on what I am seeing cropping up.

  9. duffyfallon · ·

    Super interesting post! Using VR to treat mental illness is a use-case I had never considered before. I appreciate your comment regarding your understanding/appreciation the power that VR holds as a disruptive technology in the future despite where it stands today. I agree- I’ve tried a couple of different VR headsets and have felt a bit let down given all the hype around it. But, regardless, it helped ground me understanding of what it could become Both your examples — using VR to treat PTSD and depression patients — were super interesting, and highlight that VR will make a hugely positive impact on treating mental health issues going forward.

  10. This was a great post! Just make sure you link your sources next time.

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