How can virtual reality benefit our mental health?

Could virtual reality be the key to overcoming social anxiety?

When you think of “virtual reality,” your mind can automatically go to high-tech games and distant digital terrains, but this innovative technology can also have a more practical use for us, right here on planet Earth.

Virtual reality, or VR, is a 3D simulation of a computer-generated environment with which you can interact wearing specialized headphones. Once the headphones are activated, you are fully immersed in the virtual world you have entered, and you may be able to move and interact with the scene using other compatible devices, such as gloves or mobile phones.

Already poised to reform the entertainment industry, in March 2020 it was announced that the NHS would begin using RV therapy to help people overcome social anxiety. In a program called “OVR social engagement,” created by the VR therapy company Oxford VR, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques were translated into immersive VR environments, which patients were admitted to during the weekly sessions.

In real environments, users do full daily tasks, such as going to a supermarket, paying for items, or catching a bus. For people struggling with social anxiety, scenarios like these can be problematic, but the goal of virtual reality therapy is to help them take what they are able to learn from the virtual experience and apply it. the real world.

In a way, it is an intermediate step towards exposure therapy, a technique to help clients overcome their fears and phobias by being “exposed” to them in a safe and controlled environment, which is taken advantage of. virtual reality therapy, while clients have the extra layer of comfort in knowing that they are only in a simulation.

It is an approach that Sophie Thompson stumbled upon by accident, but which she now points to as the key to overcoming her social anxiety.

“I was always shy when I was little, unless I was around my friends or classmates,” Sophie explains, as she reflects on her journey. “As I grew up, that started to limit my life. I didn’t apply to universities where I would have to be interviewed, I would ask my friends or family to ask me for a restaurant, and sometimes I would hide upstairs if we had guests, as I felt too anxious to talk to people who already he did not know. There were even some times when I didn’t leave the house because I didn’t want people to see me. “

The idea of ​​using the RV to combat these feelings never occurred to Sophie, until later in life. She was anxious for a date to speak in public when her business partner, Dom Barnard, who worked in the VR department of a large company, suggested that RV might be useful for practicing his speech before doing so. seriously.

“I had heard of VR before, but hadn’t tried it, so I didn’t understand the power it has to trick your mind into thinking and feeling that you’re somewhere else,” Sophie says.

“Practice is perfect when it comes to many skills and communication skills, such as public speaking, are no exception. For some reason, we are expected to have these skills and pick them up naturally, but no one would expect you to just know how to play the violin because you’ve seen other people do it.

“I needed to talk to new people and make presentations to overcome my fear, but the fear was so bad that I avoided it completely, so I got stuck.”

It’s a scenario that will be familiar to many people with social anxiety, where avoidance behaviors (when someone takes conscious actions to stay away from things that scare them) are common. It can be hard to take the first step to expose yourself to a scary situation when all the anxious thoughts of “What if I spoil?”, “Will they like it?”, “Will they think I’m stupid?”, “And if I forget the my lines? ” they run around your head. But this is where virtual reality comes in.

“Virtual reality provided me with a psychologically safe environment that could elicit the same fear response as real life, unless there were real-world consequences,” Sophie explains. “It was like exposure therapy for me; it gave me the opportunity to gain my skills and confidence, without fear of judgment. I could recreate social or speech situations whenever I wanted, ranging from audiences of just two people, to begin with, and then I built my way up to hundreds. This RV practice bridged the gap between having practical skills and, fundamentally, the confidence to talk in real life. “

“It was like exposure therapy for me, it gave me a chance to build my skills and confidence without fear of judgment.”

Following her experience, Sophie founded VirtualSpeech with Dom, a virtual reality app that offers online public speaking courses, sales presentations, interviews, presentations, and more. Just six months after launch, the app has over 100,000 users.

“Best of all,” Sophie says, “I can now order my own coffee and talk to new people without anxiety.”

At a time when we often reflect on the negative impact that technology is having on our well-being, the rise of innovative programs that can support and transform our mental health is not only comforting, but inspiring. And for those who have struggled with the initial push it takes to start challenging fear and anxiety, the next steps could be practically within reach.

Beyond CBT, RV is being adapted by other wellness professionals, such as life coaches and hypnotherapists, who offer sessions that incorporate this technology to help clients achieve their personal goals. These virtual environments can help people develop self-knowledge, as well as provide a space to practice skills that will help them overcome challenges.


To connect with a counselor who can help you overcome your social anxiety, visit counseling-directory.org.uk

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