Treating paranoid or persecutory delusions may only be a headset away, because a new study shows that virtual reality (VR) can significantly decrease distress, especially in crowded places.

While VR headsets like Oculus Rift have been designed mainly for games, health care has also found an unlikely use for them: a possible therapy for people with mental conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.

An Oxford study supported by the Medical Research Council reveals that the same technology can be significantly helpful for patients with severe paranoia by lessening distress after 30 minutes of use.

Those who suffer from persecutory delusions, one of the hallmarks of many mental health disorders like schizophrenia, has a false belief of being harmed by people around them. Not only does this limit a person's movements as they try to avoid crowds, but it also prevents them from building social relationships.

VR can be used to help these people relearn the fact they are in a safe environment and allow the feelings and thoughts of paranoia to disappear.

In the research, 30 patients diagnosed with persecutory delusions were made to wear VR headsets that placed them in two simulated environments namely underground trains and lifts for half an hour. In each of the stages, more characters or avatars with different looks and reactions were introduced to simulate as closely as possible interactions in the real world.

The participants were also divided into two groups. One group was instructed to expose themselves to VR, but asked to keep their defenses up - that is, to continue with their normal composure when in real-life situations, which includes avoiding eye contact or looking at the floor.

Meanwhile, the researchers tasked the other group to lower their guard by trying to look at the characters they encounter or keeping themselves closer to them.

Given the limited amount of time, the outcome is astounding.

"From just 30 minutes in VR using the right techniques, there were large reductions in paranoia. Immediately afterwards, over half the patients no longer had severe paranoia. Importantly, the benefits transferred to the real world," said Daniel Freeman, an Oxford University clinical psychologist.

Toby, one of the participants who was allowed to interact with the avatars, agrees.

"I think if I do go on a tube train, I'll certainly remember the virtual reality experience, so I suppose the experience will stay with me ... and be a positive experience, yes," he said.

Although the research is still small, short term, and with no follow-up, the researchers believe it offers a new hope in mental health treatment. Further, as VR becomes more mainstream, treatment may already be accommodated at home.

The study is now available in The British Journal of Psychiatry. Watch the study's explanation below:

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