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How virtual reality is being used to treat fears, phobias and anxiety

Twin Cities mental health clinic using VR technology to heal
Twin Cities mental health clinic using VR technology to heal 02:47

MINNEAPOLIS — Virtual reality first made a buzz in the late '80s and early '90s, thanks to NASA, universities and gaming companies. VR has come a long way since then, including the ways in which it is used.

Now, it's being used by Ellie Mental Health in Mendota Heights to treat fears, phobias, and anxiety. It's not a video game, it's therapy.

"If we're working with someone who has a fear of flying, we can't really get on a plane with them," said co-manager Austin Jacobsen. "But what we can do with the VR is bring the plane into that therapy room."

Ellie Mental Health uses the same technology to transport users to situations that might create in them a level of anxiety, such as heights. Through virtual reality exposure therapy, WCCO's Derek James safely faced his fear while receiving tools to calm and cope. The computer simulation had him high above a city on a platform with a crane.

"Your front brain and your hindbrain, they're not communicating. So all that's happening is your hindbrain is going, 'We're up high, we're up high.' So you're having that immediate fear response," Jacobsen explained. "The idea with this stuff is we're trying to regain some sort of control over your autonomic nervous system. That's your fight-or-flight response."

This form of therapy already has a success rate of between 66% to 90% in treating PTSD. Ellie Mental Health also incorporates VR in everyday therapy sessions to put clients at ease.

"If they find being on a beach comforting, yeah, let's put them on a beach. Or maybe even put them in a more creative space so they can express themselves nonverbally," Jacobsen said.

Jacobsen says it typically takes six to 12 sessions to experience results. He says it's a tool, not a cure-all.

"None of them are magic wands, they're all different ways to work on the same sort of thing. And these different modalities resonate with different people," Jacobsen said.

Ellie Mental Health's virtual reality therapy is covered by insurance. The therapy is expanding to other Ellie clinics in Edina, Minnetonka, and Minneapolis.

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