pastel by PattyRice,

Virtual Reality Therapy

exploded view of a virtual reality headset
Virtual Reality Therapy (VRT) or Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET) makes treatment for anxiety and fears faster, more effective, and more convenient. Using a head-mounted display, computer graphics let you enter a safe three-dimensional, immersive, simulated “virtual” environment for the exposure portion of CBT exposure therapy. Read the SF Chronicle's 7/26/15 article by reporter Greta Kaul featuring an interview with Dr McMahon: Got stage-fright? Try confronting that fear using virtual reality

Also see interviews by Kristi Hansen Onkka: Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy and by news reporter Kristen V. Brown: Virtual Reality to Treat Phobias. An interview by freelance journalest Eva Schram published in the January 2017 issue of Psychologie Magazine. For articles in professional journals, go to Frontiers in Psychiatry and Journal of Health Service Psychology

Dr. McMahon is a frequent speaker about Virtual Reality Therapy and has taught continuing education workshops to psychologists at the American Psychological Association and the California Psychological Association conventions. See other stories about overcoming fears with Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET) and  cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). She uses VR software by and was an early adopter and beta tester. She is on the Advisory Board of Limbix which creates VR videos for psychotherapy. See the New York Times article.

Hear her panel presentation about "Healing with VR" on youtube:  at timepoints 8:51, 17:19, 23:55, 31:38, 38:15, 52:55, 1:01, 1:03, and 1:15-1:16:40.

Computer software allows you to “face” your fears gradually and safely with therapist support and guidance in the office. Appropriate sounds make the experience more real. Your point of view changes as you move your head and look around.

Fly on a “virtual plane”. Drive a “virtual car” in the city, through a tunnel, over a bridge, or on the highway. Interview or present to a “virtual audience”. And so on. Virtual environments are available for fears of flying, driving, public speaking, job interviews, heights, elevators, enclosed spaces, BART, open spaces, needles, and insects. Simulated virtual environments for relaxation are available as well.

Simulations are safe, controlled by the therapist, and can be stopped at any time. Together, you and your therapist select the virtual environments and experiences that will be most helpful for you depending on your fear and your stage of treatment.

For example, someone with fear of flying can experience preparing to leave, going to the airport, waiting and boarding, sitting on the airplane, looking out the window, and hearing the pilot’s announcements. Specific aspects of flying that trigger fear—such as takeoff, landing, rain, or turbulence—can be experienced safely and repeatedly under the therapist’s control.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the fastest and most effective treatments for anxiety and fears. You learn powerful anxiety management skills. Virtual reality helps you become less sensitive to stressful situations by experiencing them repeatedly while using anxiety reduction skills and learning new ways of thinking. By “facing” your fear in virtual reality using these skills and overcoming your fear, you are prepared to successfully overcome those fears in real life.

Although virtual reality technology is part of this process, the therapy is not automated. Effective treatment requires an experienced therapist and Dr McMahon has been treating anxiety and fear for over 30 years.

Dr. McMahon offers treatment incorporating virtual reality for a variety of concerns including:

  • Fear of Driving in different situations including city streets, freeways, tunnels, and bridges with varying speeds, traffic, and weather conditions
  • Fear of Enclosed Spaces (claustrophobia): as elevators, small rooms, MRI machine, and BART trains
  • Fear of Flying including waiting to leave, being driven to the airport, boarding, take-off, sitting in various locations on the plane (aisle, middle, window), flying in various weather conditions including storms and turbulence, and landing
  • Fear of Heights including tall buildings, glass elevators, and open metal construction elevators
  • Fear of MRI machines
  • Fear of Public Speaking addressing varying size audiences from small, medium, large and TED talk-style.
  • Fear of Spiders (arachnophobia) and Cockroaches
  • Fear of the Dark/Fear of Being Home Alone
  • Job Interview Anxiety
  • Needle Phobia and fear of injections, blood draws, or finger pricks to measure glucose level
  • Social Anxiety in a variety of settings
  • Test Anxiety for high school or college exams 

See Anxiety Treatment for more information on treatments for specific fears.

Advantages of using virtual reality as part of therapy include:

  • Access to a variety of environments without leaving the office
  • Ability to tailor experiences to your specific issues and fear triggers
  • Control over the user experience and the ability to repeat experiences allowing fear to subside more quickly and comfortably
  • Bridging the gap between imagining or talking about facing fears in the office with therapist guidance and support and facing them in real life on your own

Although some VRT technology is relatively new, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for fears and anxiety is an established treatment method with extensive evidence of effectiveness. Research on adding VR simulation to the exposure portion of CBT shows clear benefits. Facing fears using simulation was found to be as, or more, effective as facing fears in real life. Read the Wall Street Journal article on Virtual Reality as a Therapy Tool.

Dr. McMahon has been using virtual reality therapy to help clients since 2010. While she was working for Kaiser Permanente Medical Group, she received an innovation award for introducing VRT, documenting its effectiveness, and training other therapists on effective use of this technology. Her work was profiled in the San Jose Mercury News and on local television.

Call Dr. McMahon at 1-415-625-3565 to arrange an appointment.