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Research: Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy, a Viable Solution for Treating Eating Disorders

A research paper published in a specialized journal suggests that virtual reality exposure therapy encourages patients with eating disorders to open up to their therapist.


Psychologists have used exposure therapy for decades to treat patients suffering from various phobias, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder and low self-esteem. Now a research paper published in a specialized journal suggests that virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) is beneficial for treating eating disorders.

Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy: Creating a Safe Space for Patients

The idea of using virtual reality in healthcare is already established in various medical specialties. Also, the current global pandemic has acted as a trigger for the widespread adoption of remote patient-doctor interactions in a safe and user-friendly immersive environment.

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In this context, a team of researchers from the University of Kent (UK), RISE Ltd, and the University of Cyprus conducted a study on the use of virtual reality exposure therapy for patients with eating disorders. The results of the study are already published in the Human-Computer Interaction Journal. The findings suggest that patients are confident to talk to therapists in a virtual environment, because they do not feel judged.

Behind the Scenes of the VRET Experiment 

To create this experiment, the researchers created a Multi-User Virtual Reality (MUVR) environment, where the participants could create their avatar. Both participants and therapists wore Oculus Rift VR head-mounted displays.

However, while the participant could create and customize a realistic avatar, the therapist’s avatar had a cartoonish appearance. Once the therapy session began, the participants would start discussing their feelings and adjusting various parts of their avatar. At the same time, they would start removing items of clothing, until the avatar would be wearing underwear.

How the Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy Works

Exposure therapy involves getting the patient to confront their fears and phobias in small, incremental doses. For instance, patients with arachnophobia (fear of spiders) are first shown a spider from a distance, then increasingly closer to them, until they are confident to touch it.

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In virtual reality exposure therapy, patients suffering from bulimia, anorexia, and other eating disorders, confronted the avatar of their body they created versus an actual photo of them. The therapist encouraged them to speak openly about how they see their body and how they feel about each part of it. Towards the end of the session, participants had a more realistic mental image of their bodies.

Participants and Therapists’ Reaction to the VRET Experiment

Both participants and therapists gave positive feedback to the virtual reality therapy session. One of the participants quoted in the published paper stated:

“Via this VR app, I was able to create my ‘true’ self. Through this process, I felt capable enough to see and create my body accurately. I started creating a large body figure, but through the app and the whole process, I realized that I was overreacting. At the end of the process, I was able to create an avatar similar to my body.”

In their turn, healthcare professionals agree that virtual reality exposure therapy could be the key to treating eating disorders more effectively.

“I feel that the VR remote psychotherapy allows the participant to express her emotions more freely. Not being able to be seen makes her comfortable to disclose emotions and ideas about her body shape that trouble her. I feel that this kind of psychotherapy will be more suitable than face-to-face psychotherapy for the introverted individual,” said one of the therapists who participated in the experiment.

How Virtual Reality Can Shape the Future of Therapy

What keeps patients away from seeking help is fear of being judged. However, the approach of virtual reality exposure therapy is to remove the human presence from sessions. Instead of an actual therapist or a realistic VR character, patients interacted with a cartoon representation.

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In the opinion of Dr Jim Ang, the Supervisor of the study and Senior Lecturer in Multimedia/Digital Systems at the University of Kent, this approach will revolutionize therapy.

“The potential of virtual reality being used in addressing health issues with patients, remotely and without the issue of potential judgment, is for VR to be utilized throughout the health sector,” Ang said in a press release shared with ARPost. “Without the issue of judgment, which people can fear in advance of even seeking medical advice, VR can give people the confidence to engage with and embrace medical advice.”

the authorARPost