Severe paranoia can be treated using Virtual Reality (VR), according to research conducted by Oxford University.
Publishing their paper in the British Journal of Psychiatry, the researchers explained how they ran simulations using VR, such as being in a lift or on the London Underground, to allow test participants with paranoia to try and reduce their fear of being in such situations in real life.
The psychological disorder causes individuals to believe that other people want to deliberately harm them, resulting in them not trusting others. It can lead to those with paranoia suffering from acute anxiety when they are in social situations, and therefore it is common for sufferers to avoid going out.
30 people participated in the study, with the intention being that they would learn that social situations they would usually fear were actually perfectly safe. Some of the participants were asked to perform their usual defensive behaviour, such as looking down at the floor and avoiding eye contact, when using the VR system. The remaining participants received encouragement to lower their normal defences, and perform acts such as standing right in front of a computer character and staring them in the eyes.
At the end of the day’s testing, more than half of this second group didn’t have severe paranoia. This group also showed the greatest reduction in paranoid delusions, while the first group reported slight reductions in their levels of severe paranoia.
Professor Daniel Freeman, who led the study, said: “At the heart of paranoia is the unfounded belief that people are under threat. With Virtual Reality, we can help the person to re-learn that they are safe, and when they do that, the paranoia melts away.”
“I think this is a glimpse into the future of mental healthcare. There is a revolution underway in Virtual Reality with many headsets becoming available. As these become more affordable, we will see them used not just in clinical settings, but in people’s homes.”
Toby Brabham was one of the participants in the study, with the 45 year old having been diagnosed with schizophrenia more than 20 years ago. He has experienced severe paranoia before, and would avoid going out, display defensive behaviours whenever he did.
Having successfully been receiving treatment, he agreed to take part for the BBC, and afterwards said: “If I go on a Tube train or lift now I will certainly remember the Virtual Reality experience and I think it will be helpful in reducing any feelings of anxiety that I may have.”