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Anxiety? Try Virtual Reality

Half-Life: Alyx, Superhot, and Beat Saber. You must be wondering why I mentioned three Virtual Reality (VR) games on a blog related to healthcare. The most logical explanation would be that I am here to defame VR and its applications, as slander against video games, or anything related to video games, has been common since their inception. Well, it might surprise many that VR is becoming one of the top new treatment prospects in the Mental Health field. More specifically, VR is proving to be a novel and practical approach to treating the most common mental health disorder: Anxiety.

As of 2019, anxiety disorders inflict close to 4% of the world's population(~275 million). This number grew by a whopping 25% in the first year of the COVID-19 Pandemic and continues to grow as the Pandemic is still reluctant to end entirely. This is a grave problem as anxiety, and its onslaught of symptoms prevent an inflicted person from performing daily functions. The long-term impacts of anxiety are even worse as they seriously harm not only a person's mental well-being but also their physical health, with some common complications being memory problems, frequent migraines, heart problems, risk of heart disease, weakened immune system, and gastrointestinal disorders. The short-term presentation of anxiety symptoms is similar to many other common and unharmful disorders (often simple nervousness). This unfortunate similarity leads to many undiagnosed or simply ignored cases of anxiety disorders. This unintentional ignorance is one of the root causes of the rampant spread and growth of anxiety worldwide.

However, since the turn of the century, mental health and mental health disorders have slowly gained more relevance and attention in the medical field. We are much better at searching for and finding mental health disorders, like anxiety, now than ever. Accompanying the change was the growth of new and innovative treatments for mental health disorders. Right now, the gold standard for anxiety treatment is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT is an effective anxiety treatment that essentially tries to teach inflicted patients to treat themselves when they have an anxiety attack. More Specifically, patients with anxiety go to see a local therapist, who will break down the causes and symptoms of the patient's anxiety. From there, the therapist works on teaching the patient ways to deal with these causes and symptoms. CBT is efficient because it enables the patients to deal with their anxiety attacks, even when they aren't in direct contact with the therapist or the treatment. However, CBT is definitely not the answer to ending all cases of anxiety disorders. A 50-minute session of CBT costs an average of $130, with the cost ranging anywhere from $100 to $200. This extremely high price point makes CBT a practical treatment option for only a few select people. Additionally, CBT might take many sessions to actually show results, which means weeks of anxiety-related struggles and high expenditure accompany CBT. Many of the other anxiety treatments fall into the same pit trap of having high costs. Some treatments, like anxiety-reducing drugs, face another obstacle of added burdens and symptoms. Many anxiety-reducing drugs have a short-term effect and promote heavy reliance. Some even cause direct symptoms that make the medication intake unpleasant and unwanted. For these reasons, new and more attainable treatments are in need. Using VR as a treatment option might be the right step forward.

While VR's application for mental health treatment is relatively new (research starting near 2017), the application of VR in the medical field originated in the early 2000s. However, the VR tech used in the early 2000s was not advanced enough to warrant any heavy investment. Now, when VR tech has advanced tremendously, the use of VR throughout all facets of the medical field has skyrocketed. While VR treatment of various forms has been tried on many mental and physical disorders, its success in treating anxiety disorders is unmatched. Currently, two types of VR treatments show promise in aiding anxiety. First, VR Exposure Therapy (VRET) is the most used and tested type. VRET mimics vaccines in the sense that it exposes the patients to small samples of the cause of their anxiety. VRET is most successful for "straightforward" anxieties, which have one or two direct causes for the anxiety, like social anxiety and public speaking anxiety. The other type is VR Feedback Therapy. Feedback Therapy uses small games and exercises to either build up courage and familiarity over an anxiety-inducing cause or occupy the brain and body through neurofeedback and biofeedback to shift concern away from anxiety-inducing causes.

These two prospective VR treatments are much cheaper than the constant therapy visits or the constant medication needed for other treatments. The price of VR treatment solely lies in the initial cost required to buy the necessary equipment. While this price is much lower than the rest of the treatments, it isn't cheap enough for all 343.75 million people with anxiety to use it. However, as technology advances, we hope that the price of the necessary equipment drops to a reasonable point. All the treatments and research mentioned above were conducted in a head-mounted display VR. As time goes on, VR technology will evolve to such a degree that we can start using projection-based VR systems that give a more simulated environment. When this technology gets perfected, it will open new doors for even more effective VR treatments. For now, we know that there is a possible treatment that could help solve the anxiety crisis we are facing. As time goes on, we must hope that the advancing technology will provide a way for new and more effective VR treatments to once and for all solve the problem of anxiety disorders in our society.


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