Virtual RealityHealthcare/Medicine

Virtual Reality for Treating Eating Disorders and Body Dysmorphia

Virtual reality offers opportunities for assessment and treatment of eating disorders and body image disorders.

Eating disorders, such as binge eating, bulimia nervosa, or anorexia nervosa, are serious, and sometimes fatal, illnesses that can cause severe challenges to a person’s eating behaviors. Even obsessions with food, body weight, and body image are also symptoms of an eating disorder. Overall, eating disorders can be some of the most difficult mental conditions to treat.

An Australian team even created a virtual reality film highlighting the dangers and complexities of these illnesses by placing a viewer directly into the shoes of an individual suffering from an eating disorder. The VR immersive film, called Iridescent, was created by communications and marketing company Porter Novelli, in combination with Butterfly Foundation, an organization that provides support and education surrounding eating disorders.

virtual reality film Iridescent

There are many root causes to eating disorders, which affect millions of people. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, at least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the U.S., and every 62 minutes at least one person dies as a direct result from an eating disorder.

Recent studies suggest that visual exposure in virtual reality may help patients battle these disorders within a controlled environment, in combination with traditional cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

In fact, a team of researchers at France’s University Hospital of Brest researched more than 300 studies on virtual reality’s use in treatment of eating disorders, and concluded that the technology was a successful tool, though still in its infancy.


Virtual Reality in Behavioral and Mental Therapy

Psious is a behavioral health technology company which has created the PsiousToolSuite virtual reality platform. It’s a product that is sold to professionals in order to bring value to mental health treatment. It has a variety of virtual simulations that can be used in clinical practices, and professionals can control the scenery, monitor a patient’s stress levels, and even guide their perceptions of reality.

PsiousToolSuite virtual reality platform
PsiousToolSuite is fully customizable for medical professionals.

One customizable simulation offered takes place in a restaurant setting where the patient can go through a virtual scenario of ordering and eating a meal. The patient then simulates eating this meal while having a conversation with a virtual acquaintance. The goal is to expose patients to specific stimuli within a safe environment, in which the patient can be taught specific strategies in order to treat their anxiety around food.

Psious VR platform for treating eating disorders
One of the scenarios available by Psious VR platform for treating eating disorder anxiety.

Dr. Howard Gurr, a therapist utilizing Psious’s virtual reality technology, claims in a Wall Street Journal interview that virtual reality, with 90% success rate, is more effective in treating eating disorders than any other treatment option he has used in his 30 years of practice.


Using Virtual Reality for Modifying the Memory of the Body

Many factors also go into how people perceive the “perfect body”. For every time period over a course of the past few hundred years, there was a different type of perfect body. In this present day, where social media can lead children as young as 8 years old to start questioning their body image, a 2016 study published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, used a type of body-swapping illusion in virtual reality to help women alter the way they think of their bodies.

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In summary, researchers gathered 21 women and asked them to estimate the width and circumference of different body parts. After providing their estimates, the women were subject to two types of body-swapping illusions. They wore a virtual reality headset, and when they looked down, they saw a skinny virtual body. To evaluate how effective this experiment was, they then had the women answer a questionnaire about the process, in which they found the women had a different representation of their body image.

Women who participated in this study reported a decrease in the ratio between estimated and actual body measures for most of the body parts considered. It was a valuable first step in understanding body image distortion and disturbance in those with eating disorders, as well as obesity.


Future Outcome

Since this is still a rather new type of therapy, there is still some exploring left to do in order to reach its fullest extent of usefulness to those suffering from the many types of eating disorders.

Still, with such continued success in treatment and the continued advancements of technology, we will see that virtual reality will be far more accessible to both patients and doctors in order to treat a variety of illnesses and disorders.

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Patricia Chang
the authorPatricia Chang
Patricia Chang is a South Florida-based freelance Digital Project Manager and XR Strategist. She is also a U.S. Navy veteran born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada, and has also resided in the states of California, Hawaii, and New York. With her B.S. in Computer Information Systems and Master’s in Project Management, Patricia has a decade of experience working with businesses at strategic and operational levels from technology start-ups to major corporations. When not doing project-based initiatives, you can find Patricia obsessing over anything VR/AR related, including attending a VR development academy, in hopes to fine tune her future digital consultancy business.