Could virtual reality be the key to overcoming social anxiety? – Ed Exec
This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Happiful
When you think of ‘virtual reality’, your mind may automatically go to hi-tech games and far-off digital lands – but this innovative technology may also have a more practical use for us, right here on planet Earth. Virtual reality, or VR, is a computer-generated 3D simulation of an environment, which you can interact with by wearing a specialist headset. Once the headset is on, you’re totally immersed in the virtual world that you have entered, and you may be able to move around, and interact with, the scene using other compatible devices, such as gloves or handsets.
Already set to reform the entertainment industry, in March 2020 it was announced that the NHS was due to start using VR therapy to help people overcome social anxiety. In a programme called ‘OVR social engagement’, created by VR therapy company Oxford VR, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques were translated into immersive VR environments which patients would enter during weekly sessions.
In life-like environments, users ‘complete’ daily tasks, such as going into a supermarket, paying for items or catching a bus. For people who struggle with social anxiety, scenarios like these can be problematic; the goal of VR therapy is to help them take what they are able to learn from the virtual experience and apply it to the real world.
In some ways, it’s an intermediate step towards exposure therapy – a technique to help clients overcomes their fears and phobias by being ‘exposed’ to them in a safe, controlled environment – that VR therapy taps into, while clients have the added layer of comfort in knowing that they are just in a simulation.
It’s an approach that Sophie Thompson stumbled upon by accident, but which she now points to as the key to overcoming her social anxiety. “I was always shy as a child, unless I was around my friends or classmates,” she explains, as she reflects back on her journey. “As I got older this started to limit my life. I didn’t apply for universities where I’d have to interview, I’d ask my friends or family to order for me in a restaurant, and – sometimes – I’d hide upstairs if we had guests, as I felt too anxious to speak to people I wasn’t already familiar with. There were even a few times where I didn’t leave the house because I didn’t want people to see me.”
Power to ‘trick your mind’
The idea of using VR to combat these feelings never occurred to Sophie until later in life. She was anxious about an upcoming public speaking appointment when her business partner – Dom Barnard, who was working in the VR department of a big company – suggested that VR could be a useful way to practise her speech before she did …….