VR therapy could help reduce agoraphobic avoidance and distress in people with psychosis

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Virtual reality therapy could be a key to helping patients with psychosis reduce agoraphobic avoidance and distress, according to a recent study published in the Lancet

In the study VR therapy was used to immerse patients into a variety of social scenarios with a virtual coach to help guide them.

Authors of the study found that patients who had VR therapy and usual care had significant reduction in agoraphobic avoidance and distress compared to their peers who just received usual care. The study also discovered that the patients with the most severe anxious fears and avoidance benefited the most from the VR therapy. 

Researchers did not, however, find a “significant difference in the occurrence of serious adverse events” between the two groups.

“The mediation analysis indicated that the VR therapy worked in accordance with the cognitive model by reducing anxious thoughts and associated protective behaviors,” authors of the study wrote.

“The moderation analysis indicated that the VR therapy particularly benefited patients with severe agoraphobic avoidance, such as not being able to leave the home unaccompanied. gameChange VR therapy has the potential to increase the provision of effective psychological therapy for psychosis, particularly for patients who find it difficult to leave their home, visit local amenities or use public transport.”

The study included 346 patients ages 16 and older with a diagnosis of schizophrenia spectrum psychosis or an affective diagnosis with psychotic symptoms. Patients in the study all reported barriers to leaving their home because of anxiety. 

Half the patients were assigned to Oxford VR’s gameChange VR therapy and usual care, while the other half received usual care only. Patients in the VR group accessed a software program that delivered six 30-minute VR sessions over the course of six weeks. The VR therapy was administered by a clinician, who helped set up the technology for the patients and monitor the process.

WHY IT MATTERS 

According to USA Facts, 122 million people in America live in an area with a healthcare shortage. This shortage in healthcare providers has led to an uptick in digital tools to help patients seek care, including VR. 

“Immersive virtual reality (VR), interactive three-dimensional computer-generated worlds that produce the sensation of actually being in life-sized new environments, is a potentially powerful therapeutic tool that can overcome these barriers,” authors of the study wrote.

“Patients more readily partake and learn in simulations of anxiety-provoking situations because they know the recreations are not real. By automating delivery of therapy in VR, the reliance on trained therapists is removed. In automated delivery, techniques are implemented consistently, and trial outcomes are highly likely to be replicated.”

THE LARGER TREND

Oxford VR has been working in the social anxiety space for some time. In 2020, the company revealed a new tool called OVR social engagement. It’s designed to treat a variety of mental health conditions associated with these types of anxiety, including agoraphobia, depression and schizophrenia.

But this isn’t the only company looking to use VR for similar types of therapy. Limbix Italia has used VR technology to help hospital staff deal with anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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