With 2016 heralding the release of VR headsets like the Oculus Rift, and Sony’s PlayStation VR. A study has just concluded that Virtual Reality can be successful in treating patients with severe paranoia, by enabling patients to face their fears, and helping them learn that the things they fear are in actual fact safe.
The study, carried out by researchers at Oxford University, is published today (5 May) in the British Journal of Psychiatry. It combines evidence-based psychological treatment techniques with state-of-the-art virtual reality social situations to reduce paranoid fear. With around 1-2% of the population suffering from severe paranoia, which is typical of mental health disorders like schizophrenia. Patients tend to show an extreme mistrust of other people, with some people believing that others are trying to harm them, which leaves some sufferers unable to leave their house.
The study found that when patients went into a virtual reality simulation with increasing numbers of computer avatars, they gradually began to re-learn that they were safe. The volunteers were randomly given different instructions on how to deal with the situations presented to them in VR. One group were told to use their normal defence behaviour, and that it would work a bit like going into cold water, uncomfortable at first, but they would get used to it. The other group were encouraged to drop their defences and fully re-learn that they were safe, by approaching the computer characters and looking at them and standing toe-to-toe with them.
The patients who fully tested out their fears by lowering their defences showed significant reductions in their paranoia, with over 50% showing they no longer suffered severe paranoia at the end of the testing day. The group who still put up their defences also showed benefits with over 20% no longer suffering. Patients who fully tested out their fears in VR also were much less distressed in a real world situation. Further research is needed to see if these results can be sustained beyond the testing day, but it is heartening to hear of these potential benefits of virtual reality.