How Does VR Therapy Compare?
How does VR therapy compare to the alternatives? We asked Dr. McMahon for her thoughts on this topic.
Anxiety is one of the most common mental health issues. Fear can interfere with your life, decrease your happiness, and prevent you from doing things that you would like to do.
The good news is that proven, research-tested anxiety treatments can produce life changing results, often within weeks, and usually without needing medication. Cognitive behavioral therapy is the primary treatment for anxiety issues and VR can make this therapy faster and easier.
VR is especially helpful when treating fears and phobias because it provides so many more options for the exposure part of therapy. Using VR for exposure provides the client with compelling experiences that can be customized by the therapist and repeated quickly.
I have also found VR to be useful in treating a broad range of mental health issues that include anxiety. In some cases, VR experiences have helped these clients gain life-changing insights.
My VR therapy clients say things like:
“Overcoming my phobia opened up my life. It freed me. I felt like I got out of jail.”
“I flew and I wasn’t scared. I couldn’t have done it without virtual reality. Thank you!”
“The different visual experience made me feel better. It changed my breathing, changed my thinking. Really pulled me into the moment. It was really powerful."
“I had therapy before, but I never had a breakthrough like this.”
Clients also tell me their families see the change and appreciate their getting treatment for their anxiety.
This is why, even after 40 years, I still get excited about helping people overcome anxiety issues.
Evidence from the psychology research supports the benefits of using VR as part of therapy. For more information, see Virtual Reality Therapy for Anxiety: A Guide for Therapists.
Let’s look at the other alternatives to VR therapy for anxiety.
You can do nothing and hope the anxiety issue goes away with time. This works in a few situations, especially for children who may outgrow their anxieties as they get older and their brains develop.
For most adults, waiting is a less good option because anxieties often get stronger over time. If your anxieties are infrequent and do not interfere with your activities, you can try watchful waiting. Be alert for signs that your anxiety reactions are becoming more intense, you are avoiding doing more things because of anxiety, or that you are adding more 'safety actions' to your routine.
Some people try using substances to blunt or prevent feelings of anxiety. This may include herbs or supplements, alcohol, marijuana, CBD, street drugs or prescription anti-anxiety medications.
Medication can be a good short-term solution for activities and situations you do not face frequently. For example, taking a short acting anti-anxiety medication to get an emergency MRI.
In general, however, substances are not helpful for anxiety in the long-term. Substances can make you feel medicated, interfere with your functioning, or be addicting. Even when a medication is helpful, research shows that therapy and medicine is better than medicine alone.
Self-help can be a good first step. You may get over your anxiety on your own, or it can help prepare you to benefit from therapy. Overcoming Anxiety and Panic interactive guide explains the causes of anxiety, how the instinctive responses to anxiety can create a vicious cycle, and how to break this cycle. Many people start feeling better after just reading the first section of this book. If you decide to see a therapist, you can use your forms and records to jump-start therapy and support your progress.
Dr. Elizabeth McMahon is a clinical psychologist who has been treating anxiety for more than 40 years and using VR therapy with clients since 2010. Her website is www.elizabeth-mcmahon.com.