Virtual Reality (VR) as treatment for OCD

Virtual reality as a support in treatment of anxiety and phobias is still relatively early days, and has little adoption by therapists.  However from an academic stand point it is not new. The first research was done in 1995 by psychologist Barbara Rothbaum and computer scientist Larry Hodges. I haven’t found any research specifically targeting OCD with virtual reality (VR), but it is already being applied to exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP) the gold standard of OCD treatment.

How does VR work for ERP? The department of psychiatry at Duke university explain it well:

…participants are placed in a computer-generated three-dimensional virtual world and guided through the selected environment. Computer graphics and various display and input technologies are integrated to give the user a sense of presence or immersion in the virtual environment. The therapist then guides the participant through the environment and can interact with them through the entire event.

To put this in context, you have fears of contamination around blood. You fear it may be infected with HIV. Before the simulation you decide with your therapist that a dubious looking red splodge on the kitchen counter is a trigger for your contamination fears. You then put on the VR googles and it’s playing this trigger situation. Your therapist guides you to the kitchen counter, and it may get you to look at it, then get closer etc etc building up until you touch it, and then reframe from washing your hands in the virtual world, or throw off the goggles in a rush of anxiety. The benefits of virtual reality is that the exposure can be done over and over again, arguably allowing you to get to habituation much quicker, which is the goal of ERP. It will allow the therapist to track your progress digitally. It may be less invasive then actually touching a red splodge in the real world, and act as a first step to achieving this – for those that find ERP very difficult at first.

The biggest downside is the massive cost of investment for the therapist to buy all the equipment and software. This will of course reduce a lot in future years, as does all technology. Also the creation of virtual worlds that can encapsulate people’s wide and varied triggers will be tricky.

I’d love to see more academic studies done focusing on OCD specifically. But needless to say I can see this technology helping OCD sufferers recover much quicker, and empower the therapists to achieve this goal.

Do you think virtual reality would help you with tackling your compulsions?






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