In 2001 The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that mental health disorders will affect one in four people at some stage of their life – an estimated 450 million people at any given moment, putting mental or neurological disorders up there as one of the leading causes of ill-health globally.
Clinical trials over the last 20 years have shown the effectiveness of Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET) and have helped psychologists and health professionals manage a range of symptoms related to anxiety disorders; certain phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), psychotic disorders, and public anxiety.
Now with the advent of affordable and available VR headsets such Oculus Quest 2, Valve Index, HTC Vive Pro 2, HP Reverb G2 and HTC Vive Cosmos Elite VRET are becoming much more available.
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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Approximately 6% of the population in the U.S. will suffer from PTSD at some point in their lives, that is around 15 million adults a year. Roughly 8% of women will develop PTSD in their lives compared with 4% of men. The main causes of PTSD in women are due to sexual assault and childhood sexual abuse, whereas in men it is more likely to be attributed to physical assault, combat trauma, or witnessing somebody dying.
Symptoms can range from insomnia to personality changes. Exposure therapy – exposing the patient to the traumatic event in a clinical setting to ease anxiety has been found to be more effective than medication and psychotherapy.
VRET for PTSD has mainly been examined in veterans who experienced wartime trauma. Patients immerse themselves in 360° true stereoscopic VR playback through VR platforms like Google Cardboard. The client experiences imagery such as helicopters and physically holds an assault rifle. The simulation includes explosions as well as images of the places the soldier was stationed. These studies show that vets experience a significant reduction in PTSD symptoms after treatment.
Phobias affect about 19 million Americans although only 36.9% seek treatment. VRET interventions lead to significant decreases in anxiety-related symptoms in acrophobia (fear of heights), aviophobia (fear of flying), arachnophobia (fear of spiders). Other VR treatments include relaxation and meditation techniques for stress reduction. Apps to tackle phobias could offer huge value and an easy route for the vast number of people not in therapy.
Sex therapists are also turning to Virtual Reality in their quest to treat clients. For obvious reasons, this cannot be used to ease porn addictions. However, VR porn allows the user to feel as though they are participating in a sexual act rather than being a voyeur. This can be used for issues surrounding body image, traumatic sexual experiences, or sexual performance. As well as a way for couples to act out fantasies without invoking the awkwardness of a third party joining their couple.
The porn industry has helped drive virtual reality, as it has a plethora of other technologies – a point that has now become mundane when discussing the uptake of any new technology – but one that is still valid. In the early days of the fledgling internet, the driving demand for bandwidth was due to internet searches for erotic images and movies. Before the World Wide Web came into existence in the 90s the appeal of technologies such as VCR, Betamax, and later DVD, was aided by the same industry.
Virtual Sexology teaches men methods and techniques to help men become better lovers. For extra realism, VR movies can be combined with “teledildonics” – sex toys that imitate the movements on the screen.
Virtual reality can help couples feel more confident so that if they choose to fulfil a sexual fantasy of theirs when they are in a real situation, they can enjoy it without reduced stress.
August Ames, Virtual Sexology, and female adult entertainer guide users through a series of exercises including breathing techniques, Kegel exercises, where the man plays with his penis until the point of ejaculation and then stops until the sensation has subsided before continuing.
Anhedonia is reduced motivation, or the inability to feel pleasure in normally pleasurable activities – a common symptom of depression. Seventy per cent of people with Anhedonia have an underlying, major depressive disorder.
Anhedonia is common in people who are dependent on a wide variety of drugs, including alcohol, nicotine and opioids. Although anhedonia subsides over time, it’s a significant predictor of someone relapsing.
VRET allows patients to experience pleasant scenarios and using mindfulness techniques pay attention to the positive details. Participants who underwent the treatment reported lower levels of depression, anxiety when compared with the sample in the standard treatment group.
Studies using VRET to treat anxiety disorders have used small sample sizes and have lacked appropriate control groups. However, findings from the literature should not be dismissed as a result of these limitations. Research concerning both arachnophobia (fear of spiders) and glossophobia (fear of public speaking) has all but eliminated these concerns. The pattern is more mixed for studies into agoraphobia (fear and avoiding places or situations that might cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless or embarrassed), acrophobia (fear of heights), and aviophobia (fear of flying), with research concerned with PTSD rarely meeting the criteria.
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