VR therapy helps people with psychosis get rid of anxiety and paranoia

People with psychosis can overcome their paranoia and anxiety by practicing in Virtual Reality environments. After a therapy with Virtual Reality (VR), they are less afraid and can do things they sometimes didn’t dare to do for years, such as travelling by bus or going to the gym. The effect of the VR treatment is clearly greater than the standard treatment. This is the conclusion of a joint study by the Vrije Universiteit, Universitair Medisch Centrum Groningen and Parnassia Groep, published today in the journal; The Lancet Psychiatry.

People with psychosis are often suspicious and avoid other people and places. As a result, they are unable to participate properly in society and become lonely. Virtual Reality cognitive behavioral therapy helps to better cope with social situations. The practitioner can choose the exact situations the patient needs, make them as difficult as he can handle and have them practiced as often as necessary.

Practicing in the virtual world

The study, in which 116 people with a psychotic disorder participated, compared Virtual Reality cognitive behavioural therapy with the standard treatment. People could walk around in a virtual café, a supermarket, a shopping street or a bus using VR glasses. In advance, they discussed with their treating psychologist which situation they wanted to practice and how many virtual people there were going to be in that environment. In the VR environment they practiced together with the psychologist, how to handle busy situations, going to people and starting conversations. This also allowed them to experience (in the virtual world) that expected events that they were afraid of did not occur.

Strongly reduced suspicion

After 16 sessions in VR, their suspicions in daily life were greatly reduced. People were less afraid and could do things they had sometimes not dared to do for years, such as travelling by bus or going to the gym. Three months later this was still the case. They were clearly less suspicious, less anxious and could function better socially after VR treatment compared to the standard treatment.

Application of VR in therapy

The application of VR in cognitive behavioral therapy is an important innovation. VR makes it possible for people with extreme suspicion and fear to practice with situations that may still be too exciting in real life. In a follow-up study, the researchers will investigate whether the VR cognitive behavioral therapy is cheaper than cognitive behavioral therapy with practice in real life.

Patients and psychologists from seven mental healthcare institutions in the Netherlands participated in the study: Parnassia, Bavo Europoort, Dijk en Duin, GGZ Delfland, Pro Persona, GGZ Noord-Holland Noord and University Medical Center Groningen. Prof. Dr. Mark van der Gaag (VU University Amsterdam and Parnassia The Hague) and Prof. Dr. Wim Veling (UMCG) led the research, psychologists Roos Pot-Kolder (VU and Parnassia) and Chris Geraets (UMCG) were the executive researchers. The VR environments were created by CleVR B.V.

Read the article here: Pot-Kolder R*, Geraets CNW* Veling W, Beilen M van, Staring ABP, Gijsman HJ, Delespaul PAEG Gaag M van der. Virtual-reality-based cognitive behavioural therapy versus waiting list control for paranoid ideation and social avoidance in patients with psychotic disorders: a single-blind randomised controllef trial. The Lancet Psychiatry; 2018. [link]