In today’s world, one goal of many people is no longer not only not to be sick, but to be as well as they possibly can be. Among millennials in particular, wellness is no longer a matter of the occasional visit to a doctor, but something that requires an approach integrating physical well-being, healthy diet, mental balance and healthy relationships. At the same time, some very exciting technologies are becoming commonplace, from fitness tracking apps to virtual reality.

VR and Fitness

More and more, people are hitting the gym not only to improve their physical fitness, but also for the numerous other benefits exercise offers. Prominent among these is relieving stress, which can easily contribute to conditions such as depression and chronic anxiety if not dealt with.

Virtual Reality as a Therapeutic Tool

Mental health professionals are also very excited about the possible uses of virtual reality beyond merely relieving stress. The key factor here is the extent of our minds’ ability to distinguish stimuli originating in the real world from those of a television program or video game. While we might be consciously aware of the difference between seeing something on screen and actually participating in a situation, does this fully translate to what the subconscious is experiencing? If this were the case, films would not affect our emotions, nor would video games produce measurable physiological responses, such as increased heart rate. The more immersive and interactive the digital interface, the greater these effects.

This theory certainly seems to be borne out by the remarkably rapid results achieved when using virtual reality as a treatment for a number of mental health issues. One such application is in curing phobias using exposure therapy; for instance, without using virtual reality, an arachnophobe might be shown pictures of spiders that are initially cartoonish and unrealistic. The pictures shown to the patient can gradually increase in realism as the level of anxiety they produce diminishes.

One benefit of using a similar approach in a virtual reality environment is that the patient can interact with the simulation to a greater or lesser extent. This means that the subject can practice constructive behavior in social settings, or progress through a graduated course of treatment at their own pace. Another advantage is that the technology offers the capability of reproducing environments which would be difficult to replicate in any kind of therapeutic context, such as taking off in an airliner or reliving a physically traumatic event. A simulation can be made authentic enough to elicit emotional responses similar to those that could be expected in the same situation in real life, while still being abstract enough to allow rational, considered responses.

Virtual Reality at Home

While the decreasing cost of the equipment needed will bring the therapeutic use of virtual reality within reach of many mental health practitioners and institutions, this will most likely also mean a proliferation of VR programs intended to address wellness at home. Rather than ever more games based on the theme of shooting at aliens, we should expect to see the emergence of entertainment programs built around a partial or primary focus on addressing mental health issues.

The services of a qualified counsellor are not within the reach of everyone, due to any of a variety of reasons. Bringing virtual reality into the home, however, offers a completely new therapeutic approach to those who can’t or won’t see a psychologist in the traditional sense. Users can potentially explore entire virtual worlds, confronting situations they would rather not be exposed to in the real world at a rate they feel comfortable with. They will be able to make their own choices and observe the results as if doing so in their own lives. Role-playing exercises have long been found to be of value in learning new behaviors both in therapy and business training – advances in artificial intelligence could make a virtual reality implementation of the same techniques a viable substitute.