An Oxford University study is using virtual reality headsets to treat patients with severe paranoia. Recently published in The British Journal of Psychiatry, the study enables people to face situations that they fear and to learn that they are actually safe. Examples include a crowded elevator or train.
Thirty patients took part in the half-hour sessions. They entered virtual simulations with increasing numbers of computer-generated people appearing at the same time, a situation that normally would make these patients quite anxious. But participants were told that by staying in these situations and facing their fear, they would “re-learn” that they were safe. According to the Oxford University researchers, patients who fully tested their fears in virtual reality were much less distressed in subsequent real-world situations, such as going to the local shop. Further research is needed to see if the benefits are maintained over time.
About 1-2% of the population has severe paranoia, often associated with mental disorders such as schizophrenia. Patients show extreme mistrust of other people, believing that others are deliberately trying to harm them. Some are even unable to leave their house.