Virtual Reality for the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders: A Scoping Review

Am J Occup Ther. 2021 Nov 1;75(6):7506205040. doi: 10.5014/ajot.2021.046169.


Importance: Virtual reality in head-mounted displays (HMD-VR) may be a valuable tool in occupational therapy to address anxiety. Findings from the virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) literature may facilitate translation of HMD-VR to occupational therapy psychosocial practice.

Objective: To explore how HMD-VR has been used to treat anxiety through VRET and could be translated to occupational therapy.

Data sources: We searched seven electronic databases for articles published between 2000 and 2020: CINAHL, Cochrane Library, Embase, ERIC, Ovid MEDLINE, PsycINFO, and Web of Science. Search terms included HMD-VR constructs, products, and therapy concepts. Study Selection and Data Collection: We used Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses guidelines to report studies implementing VRET to treat anxiety. At least two reviewers assessed each citation, and a third resolved disagreements. Articles were included if they were in English, reported experimental data, and used HMD-VR. Letters, commentaries, book chapters, technical descriptions, theoretical papers, conference proceedings (≤4 pages), and reviews were excluded.

Findings: Twenty-eight studies used HMD-VR to treat posttraumatic stress disorder (n = 3), specific phobias (n = 19), and performance-based social anxiety (n = 6); protocols and levels of evidence varied (randomized controlled trials, n = 11; controlled trials without randomization, n = 6; case-control or cohort studies, n = 11). Qualitative examination indicates HMD-VR is an effective treatment tool.

Conclusions and relevance: HMD-VR can be a valuable tool for occupational therapy to simulate environments where clients with anxiety disorders participate. Eliciting presence through multisensory features and body representation may enhance outcomes. What This Article Adds: Drawing from the VRET literature, this scoping review suggests that HMD-VR can be used by occupational therapy practitioners to simulate ecologically valid environments, evaluate client responses to fearful stimuli, and remediate anxiety though immersion in virtual tasks when participation in natural contexts is unfeasible. Having ecologically valid environments is particularly important for people with anxiety disorders because they need support to cope when they encounter triggers in everyday life environments.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anxiety
  • Anxiety Disorders / therapy
  • Humans
  • Phobic Disorders*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic*
  • Virtual Reality*