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Robert Anaforian, information systems specialist II at Kings View, demonstrates the Oculus Rift VR set. Photo by Donald A. Promnitz

published on November 1, 2019 - 1:03 PM
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In the span of just a few short minutes, a client can find himself at the precipice of a skyscraper, in the car or surrounded by spiders, only to be transported then to a calming campfire by the side of a lake — at least that’s what their brain is telling them.

In reality, the client is sitting in a leather chair in an office in northeast Fresno, watching and interacting with simulations displayed through a VR headset. And according to therapist Amanda Nugent-Divine, CEO for Kings View Community Services, it’s the latest frontier in behavioral health treatment. More specifically, she explained that it’s the newest tool in exposure therapy, aimed at helping outpatient clients with anxiety, phobias or trauma in overcoming their issues via simulation instead of real-life exposure.

“Say if I had a fear of heights,” Nugent-Divine said. “My therapist would go with me and eventually take me to a building where I would have to go up in a glass elevator to the very top floor. And I’m going to get a ‘fight or flight’ reaction that causes sort of the anxiety.”

By doing this therapy in virtual reality, however, the danger, anxiety and necessitation of the trip to a tall building are done away with. Instead, the headset is fitted on and the patient is able to work through their fears from the safety of the office. While it may not be seen as the same thing, Nugent-Divine further explained that the VR tricks the limbic system — the part of the brain that triggers the fight or flight reaction.

Bill Dollar, chief information officer for King’s View, said that the systems currently being used are the Oculus Rift and Oculus Go systems. These setups, he explained, have the added benefit of letting the therapist see in real-time what the client is seeing and experiencing, aiding them in the therapy/coaching process.

“A lot of them on the market are all self-contained,” Dollar said. “They don’t link into a computer.”

King’s View has just entered the testing phase in Fresno to provide data for the use of VR as a therapy tool. Nugent-Divine said that within three months, they should get a good idea on the progress and success of its use with clients. If all goes well, it could also be used on those with PTSD and even eating disorders. There are also hopes that in the future, it could be used to treat schizophrenia by simulating the voices heard by clients.


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