Virtual Reality in Psychology: Therapy and Research

Over 20 years ago, Dr. Barbara Rothbaum and colleagues showed that virtual reality-based exposure therapy could help people overcome a fear of heights. Since then, virtual reality platforms have grown not only to fuel research, but also to address phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance use disorders and more.

A therapy tool

Exposure therapy

Since the early days of virtual reality, psychotherapists recognized the potential of the technology for exposure therapy, in which patients are exposed to things they fear in safe and controlled settings. Exposure therapy targets behaviors (most often, avoidance) that people show in response to situations or memories that they find frightening or anxiety-provoking. The goal of the therapy is to diminish the avoidance behavior by actively confronting the things that a person fears to learn that anxiety and fear will lessen on their own. It is important, however, that a person confronts a situation that closely maps onto the fear, which is not always possible. For example, a veteran who developed PTSD as a result of combat exposure would not be able to confront a combat situation again.