Conquering fear with virtual reality exposure therapy

VR technology is on track to receive FDA approval for the treatment of anxiety disorders.
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Virtual reality: the immersive technology that has the power to take you to the beach, walk you down a nature trail, place you in the middle of shockingly realistic airplane turbulence, set you on top of a skyscraper, or surround you with snakes.

While some items on this list are certainly more pleasant, the others can still be quite beneficial for your health. These seemingly odd applications are being used for virtual reality exposure therapy. And this cutting-edge technology, designed by a company called Limbix, is on-track to receiving FDA approval for the treatment of a variety of anxiety disorders. 

What Is Exposure Therapy and How Does It Work?

Exposure therapy is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy, an active approach to psychotherapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy seeks to help patients identify negative or inaccurate thoughts, which occur in reaction to a variety of stimuli, in order to replace them with healthier responses.

During cognitive behavioral therapy sessions, patients work with a trained therapist, where they learn to identify unwanted or challenging behaviors and their stimuli. In order to reduce an unwanted anxiety or fear response, patients are provided with a variety of strategies for changing how they respond. They’re also given the opportunity to practice these strategies with their therapist in a safe, supportive environment.

Exposure therapy is a potent type of cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s used to treat a variety of anxiety disorders, especially phobias, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder. Exposure therapy gradually exposes patients to their triggers, while under the guidance, supervision, and protection of a licensed therapist.

Virtual reality therapy is a type of exposure therapy that specifically uses VR technology to treat patients. Over 300 peer-reviewed studies have shown the positive applications of VR technology in exposure therapy.

Using VR technology greatly expands a therapist’s capabilities of treating any number of disorders. Whether a patient fears driving, needles, flying, or experiences PTSD due to a past traumatic event, VR technology allows a therapist to use exposure therapy in-office. 

The Kit That’s Integrating Virtual Reality in Medicine

A variety of direct-to-consumer exposure therapy apps are available for download in today’s online marketplace. But using them without the direction and supervision of a licensed therapist is not advisable, as two essential components to successful exposure therapy – the controlled environment and professional guidance – are not included.

As a result, individuals who attempt exposure therapy without a licensed therapist run the risk of worsening their anxiety disorders. Limbix hopes to improve patient access to cost-effective technology by focusing instead on marketing to healthcare providers.

A complete Limbix VR kit, intended for clinical settings, enables licensed therapists to offer their patients effective, supervised virtual reality exposure therapy from the comfort of the clinic, office, or even the patient’s home.

The VR Kit includes a headset (designed to be disinfectant-safe for multiple patient use), control tablet, scientifically designed therapeutic content, and a docking station. 

Inside A Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy Session

At the start of a typical VR session, the therapist will select a virtual reality therapy program that’s been designed to address the patient’s specific mental health disorder.

During virtual reality exposure therapy, patients work with therapists to determine a range of anxiety-inducing situations. For example, a patient with an extreme fear of driving might be asked to rate certain situations (such as driving on a backroad, in heavy traffic, in rain, or at night) on a scale from “scariest” to “least frightening.”

Patients who fear certain locations due to place-specific traumatic experiences might be asked to rate a variety of places, using Google Street View integrated with virtual reality.

Using the VR headset, the patient will then gradually be exposed to increasingly intense experiences. In the case of a patient who fears driving, the virtual reality experience will begin with an easy trip, perhaps a quick commute on a quiet road.

The intensity of these VR experiences will then gradually increase, as the patient’s response improves. Eventually, patients will be able to respond calmly to the most intense virtual reality experiences, like driving in heavy traffic at high speeds, while it’s raining or in the dark.

Throughout this entire process, the patient’s therapist is nearby, simultaneously watching and controlling what the patient sees via a connected tablet. While the patient moves through the virtual reality programs, the therapist will observe the patient’s response and provide strategies for correcting undesirable reactions. 

Introducing FDA-Approved Prescription Digital Therapeutics

Virtual reality exposure therapy falls under a new category in the FDA – prescription digital therapeutics – which is a part of the Administration’s program to expand the scope of digital health. Provided enough research, development, and clinical trials, specific VR exposure therapy programs can now receive a seal of approval from the FDA.

In an effort to obtain FDA approval on a variety of virtual therapy programs, Limbix is currently partnered with a list of robust research institutions, such as Mayo Clinic, UCLA, TrialSpark, USC, Palo Alto University, and others.

Together, Limbix and their partners are working on development and trials for VR exposure therapy programs that are designed to treat mental health concerns like adolescent depression, adolescent social anxiety disorder, alcohol use disorder, chronic pain, major depressive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and social anxiety.

Limbix hopes to improve access to these cost-effective treatments, reduce reliance on medications which cause unpleasant side effects, and help as many patients as possible to live their best life.

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