Virtual reality is proving to have many exciting and interesting applications and an area where it could have a truly important impact is in medicine and mental health treatment. We’ve seen before that virtual reality therapy has been used effectively in therapy for depression and anxiety and now researchers from Oxford University have applied it in treatment for severe paranoia with positive results.
The details of the study have been published in the British Journal of Psychiatry where the researchers say that using virtual reality allows people to virtually encounter situations that they fear and as a result learn that these situations are actually safe.
Around 1 to 2% of the population suffers from severe paranoia; it’s often a part of other mental health disorders such as schizophrenia and manifests as an “extreme mistrust of other people” and the belief that others are trying to cause you harm. According the researchers, the condition can leave people unable to leave their homes or will result in the development of coping mechanisms such as avoiding social situations, reducing eye contact, or lessening social interaction which only make the condition worse as they reinforce rather than alleviate the paranoid fears.
The aim of the study was to show those suffering from paranoia that the situations they feared were actually safe and did not require the use of coping mechanisms or defence behaviour. This was done by recreating social situations the participants found fearful and having them experience them through virtual reality headsets.
The study involved 30 patients, all of whom entered virtual reality simulations set in a train and a lift where they would face increasing numbers of virtual avatars. The treatments had to be conducted very carefully and delicately, having patients enter situations they fear without triggering severe anxious reactions.
Upon entering the situations, the participants were given different instructions on how to react; some were told to adopt the defence behaviours they usually would whilst others were encouraged to avoid using these behaviours and instead approach the virtual avatars and look at them closely to learn that they were safe.
The researchers found that participants who fully immersed themselves in the virtual situation situation by dropping their defences showed a substantial reduction in their paranoia. After the virtual reality therapy session, over 50% of these patients no longer had severe paranoia at the end of the testing day.
That’s not to say there weren’t benefits for the patients who continued to use their defence behaviours – 20% of this group no longer had severe paranoia at the end of the testing day.
Interestingly, they found that patients who dropped their defence behaviours were not only less distressed in the virtual situation, they were also less distressed in real world situations such as visiting their local shop. The researchers plan to investigate further to find out if these real world benefits are maintained beyond the initial test day.
According to Professor Freeman, the study lead at Oxford University Department of Psychiatry and clinical psychologist at Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, the immediate results were very positive and showed “a new route forward in treatment. In just a thirty minute session, those who used the right psychological techniques showed major reductions in paranoia…This has the potential to be transformative.”