VR Technology May Bridge The Gap In Eating Disorder Treatment
For someone with an eating disorder, even the most innocuous activities can be dread-inducing. Going out to eat, shopping at the mall, or showing up at events can feel like nightmares brought to life, as those with eating disorders are forced to confront their triggers face-to-face.
This is why a common part of the most effective treatments for eating disorders include some form of “exposure therapy”, where patients are exposed to their fears or triggers in safe, controlled environments and talk through the emotions they are feeling and strategies for coping.
Of course, not every therapist or counselor is able to take their patients on trips to restaurants or the mall on a regular basis. Not to mention, suddenly facing these situations in the real world can be more traumatic than therapeutic. Real world exposure is typically saved for late in treatment because of this.
Instead, many patients “role-play” through these types of scenarios in the confines of their doctor’s office. Making the leap from these imagined incidents to the real-world is still significant leap that can be jarring, to say the least.
Over the past few years, this has changed with the increasingly widespread availability of virtual reality technology. Now, medical professionals can bring eating disorder patients into controlled versions of triggering scenarios and walk them through coping strategies within the safety of their office.
While still relatively pricey, VR technologies now allow doctors to combine cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy ways where patients can work-up to the most stressful environments.
For example, Dr. Howard Gurr says he commonly starts by placing patients into peaceful settings like the beach and discussing anxiety with them. Then, he begins to place them in more stressful locations such as a dressing room, where he can work with patients while they confront their body image issues.
As Gurr told The Wall Street Journal, not long ago he “had to have them sit there and say let’s work through the anxiety-provoking situations and reduce your anxiety. With VR, I can control their environment, so I can go through the entire process of desensitizing their anxiety and it’s in my office.”
The technology does more than just place people into specific scenarios. The system Gurr is using, called Psious, also enables patients to create avatars of their body. At first, they may start with a body reflecting their “ideal” body or how a patient sees themselves. Then, a psychiatrist can introduce an avatar based on a patient’s actual physical measurements.
While it is still unclear exactly how the technology measures up to traditional therapies, anecdotal evidence suggests it may be significantly more effective. Dr. Gurr, for example, claims VR is more effective than any other treatments he has used in his career. He estimates approximately 90% of patients he has treated using VR have overcome their eating disorders.
For comparison, a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology found that traditional cognitive behavioral therapy or interpersonal psychotherapy were successful in treating approximately half of patients with anorexia.