6 Virtual Reality Found to be a Potential Tool in Studying and Treating Those with Eating Disorders

For those dealing with eating disorders (ED) through therapeutic methods, there may now be a better way to break old habits through the use of Virtual Reality (VR). According to recent studies, testing has suggested definite benefits to both the therapy process and overall treatment success following the use of VR. 

Although VR is still an emerging technology and there is a great amount of development and work to go into the simulations and healthcare experience, these early results show great promise in what this new technology can do to foster and promote good dietary habits. Uses of VR in the ED therapy setting include the application of virtual weight-change promoting avatars and general environment or sensation simulation, but expand much further into the study of body image as well.

Eating Disorder Therapy Featuring VR Has Been Found More Effective than Previous Treatment Methods  

Use of VR in ED therapy(known formally now as Experimental Cognitive Therapy, or ECT), both in the short and long term has shown itself to have a greater effect on stopping ED habits than previously used techniques. Traditional therapy techniques for treating ED includes cognitive behavioral treatment (CBT) and Psychoeducation.

CTB (Perhaps the current most widely used method dianosing mental illnesses) involves the development of personal coping strategies and the targeting of harmful patterns of cognition. Psychoeducation, on the other hand, involves the direct teaching of a patient on areas where help is needed in an attempt for them to learn how to make better decisions and manage their condition more effectively.

While both traditional methods have found success in the past, ECT has shown leaps and bounds improvements in a number of areas. These include, but are not limited to a decrease in the number of binge eating episodes overtime, greater improvement of weight loss after 1 year, reduced body dissatisfaction, increased self-efficacy (measurement of self-ability), and fewer relapses into previous ED habits at both 6 and 12-month follow ups.

VR Allows Patients a Greater Understanding and Awareness of Their Own Body Image

With the ability to create virtual environments in VR also comes the ability to have real people mirrored and modeled virtually through avatars(digital representations of real people). These avatars, in their ability to be created based on anybody's specifications and desires, provide a main basis for the improvement of body image for those with ED. Through the crafting of their own avatars and the watching of the avatars completing activities that would help normalize the real person's real weight(mainly general exercise), significant increases in levels of physical activity were shown by those who observed their avatars.

Moreover, body interpretations given before and after avatars were created reportedly decreased in inaccuracy after the avatar creation. From this, it is easy to see clear benefits to the use of VR and avatar creation in motivating those with ED to work towards reaching a desired body image.
Food Simulation Shown to Accurately Replicate and Improve Real Food Reactions for Those With Eating Disorders

VR has also shown itself to be capable of full environment simulation, and is even capable of replicating acts such as eating. By placing individuals in virtual areas (such as a kitchen) and placing food in the environment, doctors and researchers are able to measure the anxiety, depression, and body image of ED patients before and after exposure to certain environments. The environmental control and realism (both in simulation and reactions) offered by VR is something that has otherwise been unavailable to doctors and researchers until now.

Results of these food and body image related simulations showed increased levels of anxiety and more depressed moods following the virtual environments. Places where this most occurred included the swimming pool (due to body image expectations while swimming) and restaurant (under both conditions of high and low-calorie foods) environment settings.

Delving into the long term impacts of this simulation, research has shown that exposure to food virtually in cases of bulimia nervosa caused food avoidance, fear of eating, and drive for thinness to greatly shrink overtime.

VR, as it applies to the normalizing of eating behaviors, has shown itself to be an invaluable tool for all types of ED.

Detailed Study Proving Body Image to be a State of Mind Over a Personality Trait Has Been Made Possible With VR

The benefits offered by VR exist beyond patient successes and benefits as well, offering doctors and researchers a greater ability to learn about the inner psychology of perceived body image.

For long now, there has been contention in the field of psychology as to whether or not the negative body image held by those with ED is a personality trait(static/unchanging characteristic) or a state of mind (temporary feeling/mood).

With the advent of VR as a tool for analyzing the though processes of those with ED, researchers have been able to determine that a state of mind appears to be primarily responsible for such behavior. Through the use of VR simulations in examining emotional responses to low and high calorie foods, a number of findings were reported to be made concerning body image and situational factors.

In summary, the researchers were able to find that those with ED displayed a greater overestimation of their own body image and overall body dissatisfaction after eating high calorie foods versus eating the low calorie food in the VR environment (with control groups without ED showing similar responses, though less extreme).

From this research, the conclusion was able to be reached that, due to there being different levels of body dissatisfaction from the different calorie level foods, body image is best understood as a changing state of mind rather than a personality trait.

Overall, the impacts of VR on ED therapy are both widespread and applicable. The emergence of VR technology and its potential impact on psychological impressions and measurement capabilities is incredibly exciting to observe. Moving forward, it will be highly interesting to see further development of VR in the healthcare and medical fields and its continued growth into our lives as a whole.

For more information on the impacts and influence of VR on ED therapy, refer to the original study here.

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