Health

How virtual reality transformed my mental health

By Alex Wood 30 August 2016
Summary

Face your fears with VR.

I have an embarrassing secret.

I’m terrified of blood.

Like millions around the world, I suffer from a phobia that seems trivial, yet can sometimes make life challenging.

Hospital dramas scare the life out of me. Horror films are a nightmare. Luckily I can avoid both of those.

But after being diagnosed with prediabetes in my late teens I can’t avoid blood tests, which I regularly dread.

So when psychotherapist Michael Carthy contacted me about VReality Therapy, a pioneering new treatment for phobias using virtual reality, I couldn’t wait to try it.

VR and therapy: a match made in heaven

I met Carthy in a bland office block in the heart of London’s financial district.

An unremarkable-looking boardroom had been transformed into a high-tech treatment room with a glossy wooden table covered in cutting-edge laptops and virtual reality headsets.

Michael Carthy uses Samsung's Gear VR headset, which sells for under £100.

Carthy’s enthusiasm for virtual reality is infectious. He’s a qualified psychotherapist and already boasts an impressive client list of city-types who are looking for quick results.

“I had a PA who had a fear of glass elevators and anything above the third floor” he explains.

“She works in the City and had to turn down a lot of work, because she couldn’t face taking the lift. With just two sessions her confidence was transformed.”

With traditional therapy it would take at least 10 sessions before a patient with such a phobia could go out into the real world.

VReality Therapy’s breakthrough can help people get their lives back on track in record-breaking time – and from a controlled environment where Carthy can teach them coping techniques on their own terms.

How VR helped my phobia of blood

Can a virtual world be as good as the real thing? I decided to find out if VR could cure my fear of blood.

I put on a Samsung Gear VR headset and a biometric sensor on the end of my finger. Seconds later I was transported to computer game-like version of a hospital waiting room.

At first I was disappointed by the image quality. But within a minute my subconscious kicked in, I started to feel like I really was in this other world.

My anxiety started to rise as other people chattered in the waiting room and I looked around.

Carthy decided to make a nurse call another patient before me, which instantly made me more nervous.

“The waiting period can be the worst part for many people” he explained. I agreed.

Eventually I was called into the treatment room. And, as my virtual character walked in, I noticed my real body jerking in time.

The graphics used in VR Therapy are low resolution but effective.

The nurse started going through the motions and, agitated, my heart rate started racing.

Carthy spots my reaction through the sensor on my finger, he pauses for a minute to teach me coping techniques, while I’m still sat in the virtual world.

The immersion was so intense that my mind felt confused every time he spoke to me. It was as if he became an imaginary voice in my head.

The nurse leant over with to administer the first needle and my real-life arm turned over in tandem. I could almost feel the sensation of it piercing my skin.

I knew it wasn’t real, but I could still feel it.

The short 10-minute slot ended. I was invited to remove my headset. I’d gone through a rollercoaster of emotions without even leaving the room.

The potential for this new form of therapy is awesome.

The Psious VR platform can even cure your fear of spiders.

The tech behind the revolution

Carthy is the first VR therapist in London, but the treatment is already making waves across the world.

He uses a popular platform called Psious that builds virtual worlds specifically designed to help treat phobias and anxiety.

Psious can put you on-board a virtual plane, on top of sky scrapers, and even inside a dusty old attic full of spiders.

In each test a biometric sensor can pinpoint the exact moment when your fear kicks in; you can recreate an airplane take-off or turbulence over and over, all for a fraction of the cost of traditional courses at airports.

Too often VR is written off as a gimmick for hardcore gamers, but pioneers like Michael Carthy are already showing the positive impact it can – and will – have on our future

If you know someone with a crippling phobia, this revolutionary new treatment could transform the rest of their life.

You can try VReality for yourself in London. Sessions start from £150, find out more at VReality.com

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