I’m sitting on a couch at a house party, looking across the room at some people dancing.
There’s a game on TV, but it looks like the party is winding down. A cab pulls up outside, and most of the guests leave.
It’s just me, another girl sitting on another couch, and a creepy guy with bad hair who’s been staring at me all night. He comes over and asks if I’m leaving already — I’m “too beautiful” to go so soon.
He eventually sits down, sliding his arm around behind me, and his chatter gets more obscene. The last guest gets up and staggers out the door, leaving me alone with the man.
Fortunately, none of this is real.
I’m actually sitting on a chair in a small office wearing virtual reality goggles as psychology professor Stéphane Bouchard guides me through a simulation.
Bouchard, who holds the Canada Research Chair in clinical cyberpsychology at the Université du Québec en Outaouais, uses virtual reality simulations like these to help treat people with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of sexual assault.
His lab and clinic in Gatineau, Que., have been using virtual reality to treat anxiety disorders since 1999, with computer scenarios geared towards phobias like spiders and the fear of flying as well as social anxiety and different kinds of trauma.
Although the simulations are not photo-realistic — the characters at the party reminded me of avatars from the computer game The Sims — they’re surprisingly immersive. It was easy to forget that I was sitting in an ordinary office or that a camera man was just a few feet away, filming me.
And the emotions it elicits are real. I started to get uncomfortable when the man put his arm around me, much as I might at a real party if someone aggressively approaches.
The virtual reality is used as part of the cognitive behavioural therapy process called “exposure.”
And while it does get uncomfortable, a therapist is always present, checking in on how the person is feeling, asking questions and never allowing the simulation to go too far.
“In every exposure, what we want is success,” Bouchard said. “We want to help people integrate and understand that it is safe so we progressively go over steps that they can master and conquer.”
“In the case of PTSD, it’s even more delicate because you do not want to re-traumatize people.”
PTSD is very common; according to one study, around nine per cent of Canadians will experience it in their lifetimes. It’s triggered by a traumatic event, said Bouchard, and although not everyone will develop PTSD after a trauma, it can be a big deal for those that do.
WATCH: What does PTSD feel like?
“PTSD has a devastating impact on people’s lives,” he said. People will have flashbacks to the event, and they will likely avoid people, places and situations that remind them of their trauma.
“Say that woman was raped by a bald guy with a beard. She might avoid all bald guys with beards because that would trigger memories and flashbacks. And if it happened in a bar, she might avoid going to bars,” he explained.
Exposing people to the situations and places they tend to avoid can help them cope with their memories and emotions around the event, said Bouchard, as well as help them feel safer in such situations.
Traditionally, therapists would have to actually take their patients to a physical location — like a bar, for instance — for exposure therapy. But with virtual reality, it can be done right in the psychiatrist’s office.
“In all cases, it’s more cost-effective because you don’t have to go to those places, and it provides therapists more control on what we expose people to,” said Bouchard.
Virtual reality has been used to help war veterans deal with PTSD in Canada and the U.S. for years. Bouchard estimates that since his lab started working in 1999, his team has treated around 700 people for everything from fear of flying to PTSD to social anxiety to arachnophobia. His team’s simulations are now being sold to other clinicians around the world.
Bouchard says he has seen those results.
“It’s fascinating because people always say that they didn’t believe it would trigger such strong emotions,” he said. “And then they’re happy because they can actually see improvement in less avoidance, less disturbance from traumatic memories, so it’s really helping objectively.”
“Thanks to virtual reality, these virtual improvements translate to real-life changes. People go to places they would be avoiding in the past,” Bouchard added.