People with a psychosis that elicits extreme suspicion can overcome their paranoia and anxiety by practising in a Virtual Reality environment. Therapy with Virtual Reality (VR) leaves them less anxious and able to do things they haven’t had the courage to attempt for in years, like travelling by bus or going to the gym. The effect of the VR therapy is clearly much more marked than that of the standard treatment. This has been revealed by research carried out jointly by the VU University Amsterdam, the University Medical Center Groningen and Parnassia Groep, which was published in today's edition of The Lancet Psychiatry.
Many people with a psychotic disorder are suspicious and avoid people and places. As a result, they cannot function in society and often become lonely. Virtual Reality cognitive behavioural therapy can help them to cope with social situations. The therapist can choose the precise situations that the patient needs, making them as difficult as necessary and letting the patient practise as often as he/she needs in virtual environments.
The research, which included 116 people with a psychotic disorder, compared Virtual Reality cognitive behavioural therapy with the standard treatment. Wearing VR glasses, people were encouraged to walk around in a virtual bar, a supermarket, a shopping street or a bus. They discussed the situations they wanted to practise with their psychologist beforehand, e.g. indicating how many virtual people were in the setting. Then they practiced with situations they were having problems in, such as crowded environments, approaching people and talking to them. They also experienced in the virtual world that the things they were most afraid of did not happen or that they could deal with it.
After 16 VR sessions, the patients were much less suspicious in the outside world. They were generally less afraid and often found themselves able to do things they had been too scared to do for many years, such as visiting family by bus or going to the gym. The effect was still evident three months later. They were clearly much less suspicious and anxious after VR therapy, when compared with the standard treatment.
Using VR in cognitive behavioural therapy is an important innovation. VR enables people with paranoia and anxiety problems to practise situations that are possibly too frightening in real life. The researchers plan to conduct follow-up research to discover whether cognitive behavioural therapy with VR is cheaper than cognitive behavioural therapy with exercises in real-life situations.
Prof. Cisca Wijmenga will receive the 2022 Galjaard Award from the Dutch Society for Human Genetics (NVHG)
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