Virtual Reality: The Future of Therapy

Virtual reality as a therapy

Virtual Reality: The Future of Therapy

Virtual reality (VR) offers clients a three-dimensional environment, generating a sense of immersion in another world in which the client interacts. Although the environments are artificial, the human brain does amazing things with it – it experiences the environment as if it were the real thing.  The boundary between artificial and real disappears.  In other words, swimming with dolphins in the VR world feels like swimming with dolphins in the real world. Yet at the same time, clients know they are grounded in a therapist’s office – they can still breathe normally while experiencing the sensation of swimming underwater  with sea creatures.  

A recent interaction with a client and his caregiver exemplifies the power of innovation.

“Excuse me,” a dad said to a therapist recently when bringing his 8-year-old son to therapy.  “What did you do with him last week?  He was so good and said that he loved the dolphins.” 

The boy swam with dolphins in virtual reality, working on anger management.  As he was surrounded by dolphins, hearing their clicks and squeaks and feeling them scan himself, the therapist helped him develop skills to manage his anger.

“I am proud of myself!” the boy exclaimed.  “I’m getting better! I didn’t get in trouble for 3 days!”


The Benefits of Virtual Reality

In psychotherapy, virtual environments can soothe clients and help them develop skills to cope with stress, practice mindfulness and to relax.  Environments also can expose clients to what they are afraid of (such as needles, spiders or an airplane) to help clients – in real time – respond in new ways to overcome fears and phobias.  

For example, if a child is afraid of a spider, the therapist can expose the child to a virtual spider at a distance.  Gradually, as the child becomes more comfortable, the therapist can bring the virtual spider closer to the child.  This technology enables therapists to work with clients in ways that cannot be done in real life.  It offers the option of evaluating, assessing levels of distress, moderating the environment, and intervening with the patient “within” a specific situation without leaving the office. It also allows for the repetition of certain conditions (for example, a classroom with a bully) as many times as necessary to work on a therapeutic goal (inhibition of an anxious response, relaxation, etc.). 

Virtual reality has been shown to be effective in reducing dropout and no-show rates in therapy, achieving results more quickly, and engaging clients who are reluctant to participate in talk therapy.  It can be used for most types of mental and behavioral challenges, and it can effectively lead clients through such skill training as mindfulness, emotion regulation, and relaxation.


Virtual Reality and Mental Health Disorders

Many children come to CHRIS 180 with extensive trauma histories and multiple mental health challenges and behavioral problems.  Virtual reality is cutting-edge technology that has been proven to be effective with trauma, anxiety, attention-deficit disorder, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorders and phobias among other things.  VR is part of the therapeutic package CHRIS 180offers families – and one that may help engage reluctant participants, stimulate interest in getting help in a non-threatening, safe way and keep youth and children in therapy so they can resolve their issues and develop effective coping skills.  If children and youth are interested in coming, parents are more likely to be engaged in their treatment as well and drop-out rates may decline.

If you are interested in participating in virtual reality therapy – or if you are a mental health professional who wants to incorporate it into your practice, send an email to [email protected].



Carol Pitts, PhD, LPC, LMFT, CPCS, is Clinical Director of CHRIS Counseling Center – DeKalb and can be reached at [email protected].

Carol Pitts, PhD, LPC, LMFT, CPCS
[email protected]
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