Augmented reality in therapy

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, commonly known as PTSD, is defined as a disorder that can be developed after a person has been exposed to one or more traumatic experiences. This anxiety disorder has been frequently diagnosed among soldiers or veterans. Lately, with the rise of augmented reality or simulated worlds, doctors have found new and effective ways to help these patients recover from this disorder.

This method is part of a broader practice called exposure therapy which is defined as the exposure of the patient to the feared object or context without any danger, in order to help them overcome their anxiety. In this case, the scenario, environment, object or creature responsible for the anxiety is virtually reconstructed using augmented reality. In the case of PTSD in the military, this mostly involves recreating moments during the war or making them meditate like we can see in this video about “Satellites” (augmented reality system).

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Using exposure therapy through simulated worlds has been particularly successful in treating PTSD and other anxiety disorders. As you can see in the following image, it can be used to treat a wide range of psychological disorders.

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This is also used in the treatment of anger management among troubled teenagers, like it is described in this article. A mental health center used a game in order to facilitate communication between a 13-year-old patient and his family.

This medical breakthrough is very crucial to our understanding of the interactions between the world of games (virtual world) and human beings.

In the documentary “Web Junkies”, a group of Chinese teenagers were sent to a center in order to help them get over their video games addiction. While watching it, one could feel a set of recurrent reasons that those teenagers used to explain why they prefer the virtual world to the real one, or why they are willing to spend so many hours in that world. From the teenager who sees real life as “fake”, hence worthless, the one who couldn’t see his father for consecutive days, to the one who affirms that “At home, I feel I don’t exist” and “On the Internet, I have friends who care about me”, we can affirm that gaming addiction is very tightly related to the fact that those suffering from it are sometimes trying to escape from the real world in order to “create” another one in which they have more control. There are also a couple of them who affirmed that unlike school, they were really good at playing video games and this made them feel worthy. In this article published in Psychology Today, the author affirms that:

“When it comes to problems in socializing that might make gamers especially vulnerable to video game addiction, the following factors seem to be important: Lack of successful, experiences in real life, Low parental support, Divorce or separation of parents, Behavioral problems or problems at school, School phobia, Poor grades, Repeating a grade (…)”.

These are also factors that can lead to depression. Going back to the practice highlighted at the beginning of this post, we are trying to see whether there is a possibility to use video games and simulated worlds in order to help these people conquer the feelings generated by those factors. Instead of letting them lock themselves in these worlds, we can use video games to not just help them escape their reality, but also learn to understand the real world and gather the right emotional tools in order to conquer their fears. They can be taught how to communicate better with people around them. As the engineer Andy Fawkes says in his talk reported here, “on some level you know it’s not real, but that doesn’t stop you from being emotionally invested”, this is the power of augmented reality and we can use it to help human beings overcome some psychological disorders they have to deal with on a daily basis.

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