Oxford VR launches VR-enabled Social Engagement to tackle anxious social avoidance

The solution enables individuals to overcome trigger situations to feel safer, more confident and more in control.

Oxford VR Social Engagement Program

Oxford VR (OVR) launched the social engagement app, a progressive behavioral health intervention using virtual reality technology to help individuals overcome anxious social avoidance — prevalent in multiple mental health conditions including agoraphobia, panic disorder, social anxiety, depression, personality disorders, and schizophrenia.

According to Oxford VR, anxious social avoidance is a major unmet need in mental healthcare. It is one of the most debilitating features of mental illness. Individuals experience extreme distress and fear in public situations — especially when alone — such as going outside, using public transport, or being in a supermarket. For some, it can progress to a point of social isolation and affect overall health in a way that is comparable to the impact of obesity and cigarette smoking.

Anxious social avoidance is also common in individuals with addiction and substance abuse issues. In severe and complex mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, anxious social avoidance leading to isolation is frequently seen. Studies show that women are more likely than men to experience anxious social withdrawal.

Developed by OVR clinicians, OVR social engagement is a user-centered program that translates evidence-based cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) through immersive virtual reality environments.

OVR social engagement is delivered over half-hour weekly sessions. During a session, the user puts on a VR headset and enters a virtual world where they are guided by a virtual coach and have to complete a series of tasks, graded in difficulty in different environments such as a street scene, a bus, and a shop — reflecting the everyday triggers of anxious social avoidance. Great care has been made to ensure the environments are life-like, interactive, and engaging.

Throughout the program, the user gradually faces problematic situations to overcome extreme distress and fear to feel safer, more confident and more in control. The program is automated and does not require a qualified clinician and can be delivered by a trained member of staff.

The VR environments give people the reassurance they can try out new things safely. By completing the tasks, users learn that they can cope in these situations and the evidence confirms that the behavioral changes made in the VR environments transfer to the real world.

“The immersive nature of VR provides a powerful new way to engage users and helps them to regain confidence, feel safe and overcome trigger situations,” June Dent, Director of Clinical Partnerships at OVR, said in a statement. “This innovative program has been created with the voices and expertise of people affected by anxious social avoidance and applies proven evidence-based psychological techniques.”

Oxford VR’s social engagement program is now available in the UK to NHS patients via providers of NHS Improving Access to Psychological Therapies, other UK mental healthcare providers and in the US and Asia through Oxford VR’s strategic partners.