Virtual reality (VR) will be big this year. Technology has progressed to the stage where your mind and body experience the virtual world as something real. As if you are really there.

As a mindfulness-based therapist, whose approach focuses on being present to our actual experience, I wondered whether virtual experiences could ever be of therapeutic help.  

Despite concerns about the impact to our mental health (see the scary bit at the end), there are at least two therapeutic practices appearing in VR – that of being with our difficult experiences, and self-compassion.

First, how do we build our everyday reality?

We are a result of many years of experience: events, relationships, cultural conditioning, ancestor’s genes and an inbuilt physiological drive to survive. Out of this mix we develop a sense of who we are, our story and identity, and perceive the world through this lens.

Being with our difficult experiences

One area of focus in therapy is to tweak that lens, altering our perception and relationship to experiences which cause us unhappiness. We begin this by noticing the impulses our experience brings. Rather than struggling in the quicksand of our critical judgement, or repressing the impulses, we practice accepting them as they are. By doing so we open up some space to play with.

What if there was a safe way to explore this process? That’s where VR comes in.

In VR you can build any virtual environment your mind can imagine. Once you slip the headset on it feels - cognitively, bodily and emotionally - absolutely real. You believe you are there, and at the same time you are not.

Gradual exposure therapies have been exploring this potential by inviting people into virtual scenes depicting their fears. Whether it be heights, spiders, or public speaking, many participating experienced a reduction in the anxiety related to their fear. Practicing being with our experience, even when uncomfortable, allows us to change our relationship to it.

Being self-compassionate

A supportive way of being with difficult experiences is to cultivate self-compassion. Research has shown it can positively affect health and wellbeing, though developing it can be difficult. Particularly for those whose minds echo to the sound of a critical voice.

It is easy to fall into the trap of treating our inner critic harshly, wanting to push it away, all the while energising our hateful emotions. Developing a compassionate voice can be an important aspect of therapy.

Meditations, such as the metta bhavana practice, support the cultivation of this quality through visualising the giving of loving kindness towards self and others. Over in the VR world they appear to be trying out something similar.

A virtual environment was created in which participants gave compassionate sentiments and statements to a crying virtual child. The participants then embodied the child and were replayed the compassionate words and gestures. This simulated the experience of receiving the compassion they had just given out, and led to a reduction in depressive symptoms for some.

And if you want to give compassion a helping hand, a dose of empathy goes a long way. VR can help here too by allowing you to experience the world through the perspective of another. Being in the virtual body of a refugee, animal in a slaughterhouse, or even coral in an acidifying reef, has been shown to increase empathy.

Is VR the future?

There are many other creative ways VR is being used to support mental health, including guided meditations for deep relaxation, and virtual environments which trigger drug and alcohol cravings to support relapse prevention.

A virtual space, where therapists engage with those who find it difficult to leave their home due to physical disabilities, could improve access to psychological help. And given the popularity of technology with young people, it may be a creative way of interacting with them on mental health issues.

But there is a potential darker side too.

Those struggling with painful feelings may retreat into the safety of a virtual reality - potentially reinforcing the cause of their pain. And how might our VR experiences, the good and the bad, seep into our real world? Could the brain and body be tricked into experiencing a real trauma?

Something which has the potential to bring people so much pleasure (easy access to sex, violence, an escape from reality) must be treated carefully. Will VR be the next addictive drug?

There are undoubtedly some exciting possibilities for its application but, with little long-term research on the effects of prolonged uncontrolled use, it’s one to keep an eye on.