How VR Can And Already Is Helping People Deal With Anxiety
The future is now...
Anxiety can have a number of triggers. Maybe you’re worried you’ll get hit by a truck next time you cross the street on a rainy day. Maybe, like me, you’re anxious you’ll piss yourself in front of a train carriage worth of people (the scariest amount). Maybe you just get flighty around large groups. The things that can cause anxiety come in all different shapes and sizes, but they usually share three things in common: they’re uncomfortable, they’re unfamiliar, and they’re uncertain. That’s where treatment comes in.
There are three methods of treating anxiety in the UK and, thanks to enduring cultural stigma (and Tory cuts to mental health spending), just 25% of people with depression and anxiety are receiving the two offered by medical professionals – talking therapy (CBT) and medication (SSRIs). For the rest of us living with anxiety, there’s only one option: self-treatment.
For some people, self-treatment means jogging twice a week, for others it’s Headspace, or isolating themselves from anxiety triggers. But could new technology revolutionise anxiety coping strategies? VR, and 360 video, are changing the way we experience media. Fully immersive, when compared to regular 2D or 3D video, VR feels ~real~. Try this rollercoaster video and tell me you don’t feel an adrenaline rush the moment you tip over the edge? It’s amazing! But what does it mean for anxiety?
Whereas apps like Headspace and Breathe can help calm anxiety attacks, they only offer a therapeutic focal point, rather than a relaxing environment, like a therapist’s office. VR can change all that, and you know what, it already is…
Deep, developed by Owen Harris, is a fully immersive meditative VR experience, controlled by the player’s breath. That’s right, your body’s rhythm is the controller. Drawing inspiration from yoga breathing techniques, the underwater world of Deep simultaneously reacts to, and guides, your breathing, syncing your consciousness and body. Where most meditation apps ask you to relax within a stressful world (have you ever tried using Headspace on the tube? It’s a nightmare), Deep IS the world, and it’s already getting rave reviews. But the possibilities of VR extend far beyond guided meditation.
When I was experiencing my last bout of acute anxiety, I could imagine nothing worse than stepping outside my bedroom. Going to the shops to buy food was hard enough, but stepping on a tube to get to work was almost unimaginable. Thankfully, the NHS were able to provide CBT within the week of my symptoms reappearing (almost unheard of thanks to austerity measures), which helped me regain my confidence and keep my anxiety attacks under control.
CBT works by asking service users to examine their thought patterns. Anxiety is so awful because it shrinks your possibilities – it tells you you shouldn’t go to the bar to meet your mates because they’ll probably get bored of you, you can’t tell your boss you’re feeling low because they’ll definitely fire you, and you definitely should not get on that tube because you might piss yourself. It’s a mental health issue based on limitation and fear. What CBT aims to do is retrain your brain, push you outside your comfort zones to show what you’re capable of, and that anxiety doesn’t own you. Do you see where I’m going with this?
VR has the potential to be the most effective CBT tool in extreme cases of anxiety. It could mean virtual therapy sessions for those who can’t leave the house for fear of triggering a panic attack, or help to make phone therapy a bit more personal. Imagine a VR app loaded with every scenario a person with anxiety disorder might find stressful, where you can push your boundaries inside a safe space. Suddenly the line between self-treatment and talking therapy starts to blur.
But the possibilities of VR don’t stop with therapy. The National Autistic Society recently released a 360 video that simulates the experience of a child with autism in a shopping centre, showing just how overwhelming sensory overload can be. Imagine events and spaces that can be planned around accessibility, by having architects and organizers experience their creations from different points of view? Sure, it’s all sci-fi at the moment, but did people really think we’d be carrying computers around in our pockets thirty years ago?
Personally, I can’t wait to have my VR therapy sessions! I just hope they can sort out the motion sickness issues first…
- Words by Josh Pappenheim
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