Coping with Anxiety through Virtual Reality

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By Yuko Martin, MA, MT-BC, LPC, ACS

Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health conditions in the United States, affecting nearly 30% of adults at some point in their lives, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

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Fortunately, however, anxiety disorders are treatable, and a number of effective treatment options are available.

At Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health, mental health professionals are using virtual reality (VR) technology along with traditional therapies to help people cope with anxiety.

Understanding Anxiety

Almost everyone experiences some level of anxiety every now and then. However, when anxiety does not subside and you are constantly living with feelings of excessive worry, dread, and fear that interfere with your daily life, you might have an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders fall into a number of different categories. Some of the most common include:

  • Generalized anxiety, which involves persistent and excessive worry about everyday things such as a job responsibilities, family health, chores and appointments.
  • Panic disorder, which is characterized by recurrent panic attacks that occur in response to a feared object or that occur seemingly for no reason.
  • Phobias, which are excessive and persistent fears of a specific object, situation, or activity that is generally not harmful. Some examples are fear of flying, public speaking, or spiders.
  • Social anxiety, which is characterized by significant anxiety and discomfort about being embarrassed, humiliated, rejected, or looked down on in social interactions.

The causes of anxiety disorders are unknown, but according to the American Psychiatric Association, likely involve a combination of factors including genetics, stress, and your
environment. The Association also reports that women are more prone to anxiety than men.

Symptoms of Anxiety

Different types of anxiety disorders can have different symptoms, but in general, common signs include:

  • Feeling nervous, restless, or tense.
  • Feeling a sense of impending danger, panic, or doom.
  • Trouble concentrating.
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • Fatigue.
  • Pounding or rapid heartbeat.
  • Unexplained aches and pains.
  • Dizziness.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Changes in behavior, such as avoiding everyday activities you used to enjoy.

In many cases, anxiety occurs along with other mental health issues such as depression, eating disorders, and substance abuse.

If you experience symptoms of anxiety that interfere with your relationships, work, or other areas of your life, see your doctor or a mental health professional for help.

Diagnosing and Treating Anxiety

To diagnose anxiety, your healthcare provider will review your symptoms and medical history.

They may also order blood work to rule out any physical causes of your symptoms and may refer you to a mental health professional for a psychological evaluation.

Treatment for anxiety typically involves traditional psychotherapy (talk therapy), medications — or a combination of the two.

In addition, patients at Princeton House may also have access to VR technology that, with the support of a qualified therapist, can help them retrain their brain to handle life’s stressors.

How VR Helps with Anxiety

It was once believed that people’s brains couldn’t change significantly once they reached adulthood.

But through scientific research on neuroplasticity, which examines how neural networks in the brain grow and reorganize, researchers have new insights about the brain’s ability to modify, change, and adapt in both structure and function throughout life.

And VR technology can help.

Virtual reality is a computer-generated, 3D environment with scenes and objects that appear to be real. Users wear a headset that blocks outside distractions and a simulated setting is sent through the lens to each eye, which creates a 360-degree view of their surroundings. The virtual world responds to the user’s head and body movements to simulate a real-world experience.

By using VR technology with traditional therapies, a person with anxiety can be safely immersed in a therapeutic environment and develop valuable techniques, such as mindfulness, paced breathing, or calming distraction to cope with heightened stress.

Using these techniques increases awareness of your physical and emotional reactions to stress as well as your surroundings. By gaining this awareness, you can change your perspective and responses to the stressor, even when you may not be able to change the situation.

Princeton House has begun using VR technology in an inpatient setting through a group called Coping with Anxiety Through Virtual Reality. In the group sessions, patients are provided with VR devices and asked to select two short programs to experience.

For the first part of the session, participants can choose from a number of breathing exercises, mindfulness, and guided relaxation programs. Their second selection focuses on guided imagery and calming distraction, such as a visit to a tropical beach, a swim with dolphins, or a stroll through the romantic streets of Paris.

After the programs are completed, the group discusses how they were impacted by what they experienced. Most participants report the VR programs help them relax easily and are applying the new skills they learned to help deal with difficult situations in real life.

For more information about services at Princeton House Behavioral Health, visit
princetonhouse.org. To speak to an admissions clinician, call (888) 437-1610.

Yuko Martin, MA, MT-BC, LPC, ACS, is a licensed professional counselor and Director of Allied Clinical Therapies at Penn Medicine Princeton House Inpatient Service.

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