I open the door and enter a room with white walls and a warm and welcoming atmosphere. I am greeted by a smiling person who invites me to come in and sit down. There are two comfortable armchairs in front of a glass table, I choose the one on the right. I see a few plants, a lighted lamp, some hanging titles and some strange-looking paintings.
Also a locked low cabinet, where a calendar and a cactus rest. I wonder where the couch is. The smiling person sits down too, on the other side of the table, and he asks me what's up.
The experiences when entering a psychology consultation are not always what one expected, but anyone who has lived through one will describe something similar; Maybe the person did not smile, maybe there were no plants or table, perhaps other things stood out on the low cabinet, although in essence the queries are all the same.
But what if we were told that there are alternatives? Virtual reality has come into our lives with a bang and it seems that it is here to stay. And psychology was not going to be left behind in this regard: there are already a large number of interventions that use virtual reality to treat different disorders.
A psychology session with virtual reality glasses
Virtual reality is a technology that allows the generation of three-dimensional environments with which the subject can interact in real time. In other words, it is something that allows us to generate worlds that do not really exist.
To better understand what this has to do with psychology, we will talk about cinema. When mentioning virtual reality, movies like Ralph Breaks the Internet or Tron Legacy may come to mind. They could be valid examples.
However, in psychology, when we refer to virtual reality, we are talking about something more like a Ready player one. For readers who haven't seen it, the movie depicts a futuristic world where people can escape from their real lives in a virtual world called Oasis.
To do this, they use virtual reality glasses, gloves and even full suits that allow them to feel the contact, or platforms that facilitate movement. In such a context, what could be a virtual reality truly integrated with our society is staged very well.
It is obviously science fiction, but it allows us to get an idea of the possibilities it has. In psychology it works the same. Virtual reality glasses and all available tools are also used to improve traditional treatments.
Approaching fear through a screen
The psychological problems that have been treated the most through this technology, and therefore have the most scientific evidence, are phobias.
Before going into it, we will briefly recall how a phobia is treated from traditional psychology. This type of irrational fear is solved by exposing ourselves to the stimulus that causes it, that is, to what we fear. That easy? Hopefully. Techniques are needed to make it possible. The role of the psychologist, therefore, is to teach them, while at the same time facilitating and allowing this approach to be possible and not traumatic.
Even at this point someone is wondering that, if this already works, why use virtual reality. As we said, this type of technology allows us to have things in front of us that are not really there. That is, if I am afraid of spiders, I don't have to bring a spider, but I can simply observe it through the screen.
In the same way, if I'm afraid of flying, I don't have to pay for a flight, but I can "get on" the plane through the screen. If I'm afraid of needles, I don't have to go to the doctor, I can "stick" myself through the screen.
In this sense, virtual reality allows us to improve and facilitate what we already know works, allowing better treatments, more efficient and effective and, in a certain sense, more economical for the patient.
A dynamic therapy to achieve adherence
As adults, we are very clear in what circumstances we must have a hard time in order to improve. In psychology, we could take advantage of a phrase that at first glance seems very traditional, "If it hurts, it is healing", to illustrate that we have to face the difficulties and challenges that therapy poses in order to move forward.
This, however, is easier said than done, especially if what is requested is monotonous, boring or unpleasant.
Faced with such a scenario, virtual reality makes it easier for us to approach those activities that cost us the most effort. An example of this can be relaxation exercises.
Although they are learned during the session, this task has traditionally been left to the patient to practice at home. Later, once learned, it is used as a therapeutic tool in different sessions.
Currently, there are companies that provide virtual reality spaces so that professionals can improve the comfort of their patients while they perform the required tasks. For example, doing the breathing exercises in a forest.
Treatment of sexual problems with virtual reality
From psychology, problems related to sexuality are also worked on. There are certain disorders, such as female orgasmic disorder, that have a very good therapeutic prognosis. However, women do not go to consultation for various reasons: shame, feeling socially judged, etc. Right now, a team from the Rey Juan Carlos University is investigating a new way to treat this disorder through virtual reality.
Specifically, it is being studied using avatar therapy, a type of treatment that has been talked about but has not yet been put into practice. Avatar therapy doesn't require glasses and can be used directly from virtually any computer, making it easy for women who want to start sex-related treatment to apply.
The first trials carried out by our team show that this strategy can be truly effective and have advantages over the face-to-face modality, allowing more women to benefit from evidence-based treatment.
As with phobias, virtual reality in this case provides us with a space in which to safely practice what we will later have to put into practice in real life.
Sexual treatments often have in common the need to correct erroneous beliefs about sexual functioning, what is normal and what is not. They also help eliminate the anxiety that can be generated by what is related to sexuality. These treatments help women discover what gives pleasure and how to achieve it, both alone and as a couple, and to focus their attention on what is important during the relationship.
All this could be carried out from the computer, through what we call avatars, a virtual representation of ourselves.
It has been shown that seeing our avatar carrying out activities produces the same sensations in the brain as if we were doing it ourselves. In this way, practicing in the virtual world allows the patient to experiment with her virtual body as a preliminary step to being able to do it with her real body, which significantly reduces anxiety.
In short, the idea of using virtual reality to facilitate therapeutic contact with people is a way of expanding the scope of psychology treatments.
Unfortunately, the stigma of mental health still weighs on the heads of these people, making them feel guilty and ashamed of their health problems, as if it was a personal choice to suffer from them or as if our supposed “weakness” was responsible.
Society's general misunderstanding of mental health condemns many people to not getting the help they need, even when we have the means to do so. Taking advantage of technologies, in this case virtual reality, to bring therapy closer to those who otherwise would not request it is one more small step on the way to improving mental health, one of the great pending issues of our society.
This article has been published in 'The Conversation'.