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Virtual Reality Therapy May Help Improve Your Own Self Image

Older man in a wheelchair uses a virtual reality headset.

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Key Takeaways

  • Virtual reality is being explored as a means for treating different mental and physical conditions.
  • VR allows healthcare professionals to manipulate virtual worlds as means of helping and treating patients.
  • This type of therapy is not yet ready for at-home, unsupervised use.

Seeing yourself through a critical eye can be beneficial. But what happens when you see yourself too critically? While fleeting negative thoughts are normal, prolonged negative feelings about yourself can lead to conditions like body dysmorphia. 

Scientists have begun exploring virtual reality (VR) as a potential solution since it grants users the ability to change how they perceive the world and themselves in unexpected ways.

What Is Body Dysmorphia?

Body dysmorphia is a body-image disorder characterized by persistent and intrusive preoccupations with an imagined or slight defect in one's appearance, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

A recent review of multiple studies examining VR and its effects on our perception finds that while its applications are still in the early stages, the benefits appear promising. The authors find that by using virtual reality, people may be able to have a greater degree of control over their bodies, and may be able to more accurately control their own sense of self, which in turn affects their behavior. VR can now be used to treat a number of conditions like eating disorders and chronic pain.

The review analyzes studies that have explored the ability of an avatar (a body in the virtual reality world) to alter behavior, feelings, and thoughts. The January paper was published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine.

What This Means For You

The research is still in its early stages but appears promising. There may be some VR therapies available to you now and the use of VR may become more common in clinical practice in the future.

The Paper

“Even though there are many studies showing and investigating the use of immersive VR environments in the field of mental health, fewer studies have focused on investigating or reviewing immersive VR clinical studies that have explored the manipulation of embodied virtual bodies in VR for improving mental health,” co-author Marta Matamala Gómez, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher in Italy, tells Verywell.

The authors looked at not only the use of VR environments, but also at the use of avatars, to improve:

  • Mental health conditions such as chronic pain
  • Neurological disorders that lead to motor or perceptual impairments
  • Psychological disorders that alter behavior and social cognition
  • Physical conditions like eating disorders or present in amputees

Why VR?

In the past few years, researchers have investigated the role of VR in helping patients. A June 2020 study found VR can help people recovering from orthopedic surgery. Another study in August found VR therapy can help those living with anxiety or depression.

“The present study aims to let the clinicians know about new ways and possibilities of using VR by using virtual body ownership illusions," Gómez says. “The virtual environment that can be perceived as real can be also modified to provide specific sensory stimuli, allowing clinicians to create precise medicine protocols adapted to the patients' needs. Through virtual reality, clinicians can design and create situations that cannot be possible to create in the real world.”

According to Gómez, this can involve changing the size or color of the painful part of the body, changing the weight of the body in patients with anorexia nervosa, or changing the size or appearance of the virtual objects in the virtual environment.

“The most exciting thing is that there is still a lot of work to do in using virtual body ownership illusions (virtual embodiment) in the field of mental health,” Gómez says. “We found that there are fewer studies using full virtual body ownership illusions in the field of motor rehabilitation, compared to the pain or psychological rehabilitation fields. This indicates that there are still there a lot of studies to perform.”

Can You Use VR at Home To Support Mental Health?

Using VR to help support your mental health at home isn't quite possible yet. "There is still a lot of work to do in introducing the use of virtual reality in clinical populations, and ethical and security protocols should still be developed before allowing the patients to use VR headsets on their own," Gómez says.

According to Gómez, three important next steps need to be taken before at-home use is even considered:

  1. The creation of safety and security VR protocols with clinical populations
  2. The creation of VR protocols surrounding full virtual body ownership
  3. The pairing of other clinical techniques with VR, such as non-invasive brain stimulation devices, electrical muscle stimulation devices, or robotic prosthesis

 

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Article Sources
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  1. Anxiety and Depression Associate of America. Body dysmorphic disorder.

  2. Matamala-Gomez M, Maselli A, Malighetti C, Realdon O, Mantovani F, Riva G. Virtual body ownership illusions for mental health: a narrative reviewJournal of Clinical Medicine. 2021;10(1):139.

  3. Berton A, Longo U, Candela V et al. Virtual reality, augmented reality, gamification, and telerehabilitation: psychological impact on orthopedic patients’ rehabilitation. J Clin Med. 2020;9(8):2567. doi:10.3390/jcm9082567

  4. Ioannou A, Papastavrou E, Avraamides MN, Charalambous A. Virtual reality and symptoms management of anxiety, depression, fatigue, and pain: a systematic review. SAGE Open Nursing. 2020;6:2377960820936163. doi:10.1177/2377960820936163