The Pandemic’s Toll on Mental Health

Can virtual reality help you cope with it?



Lindsey Naples


The adorable figure above my desk, summing up 2020-present day.


There’s no right or wrong way to feel during a global crisis—except maybe joy, that’s probably not the right reaction. Either way, the COVID-19 pandemic was unexpected in how it hit, and unexpected in how long it has lasted. So, the only “right” thing we should all be aware of is this: some of us may not be fine.


Forget the surging hospitalizations, rampant job loss, and widespread shortages of necessities; that was/is not easy for any of us to handle. But what about the more specific issues that some of us (possibly a great many of us) are experiencing?


Take, for example, the way you felt during lockdown. At first, I loved it. I was suddenly given time to do every puzzle I owned, and it was strongly advised that other people not come anywhere near me. I’m an introvert by nature with a list of health issues, so social distancing and curfews were basically my Olympics. But then I started to feel the weight of it all—isolation, fear, the only certainty being that no one had any idea what was going on. It became very difficult.


Then the mask mandate lifted during a lull in cases and, for many, it was like the sun came out. I found it a little odd how easily I seemed to go back to “normal”. But that ease back into the swing of things highlighted something else for me—some of my friends were utterly terrified to see other people or even leave their houses. And after almost two years of this, it hasn’t gotten much better for them.


Source: The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use, KFF


Can We Virtually Cope with Our Fears?

As emphasized in an article published by Scientific American back in September, “mental health conditions were a leading cause of disability worldwide” even before the pandemic hit. But now, there’s a litany of new issues plaguing people that may not have been there prior.


So, after editing a few articles from my co-worker on the new possibilities of augmented reality (AR) being used to have collaborative virtual meetings with a remote workforce, I started to wonder: Can virtual reality (VR) help with phobias you’ve developed—or had beforehand? If you could sit in a conference room with your co-workers from a VR headset, what’s to say you couldn’t use one to practice sitting in a room of people or coming close to a person without panicking?


In another article, again from Scientific American, this idea is put to the test with VR being used in something called “exposure therapy.” This is “a treatment for anxiety disorders in which patients are exposed to anxiety-inducing stimuli in a safe, controlled environment.” The idea is that, through repeated (but controlled) exposure to the fear, the patient eventually (hopefully) begins to reconcile that the stimuli they’re being exposed to is not as threatening—or at all, in some cases—as they have come to understand it to be. While used mostly with patients suffering from PTSD, the uses seem to be applicable to many anxiety-provoking stimuli… say, for example, a newly found fear of crowds, germs, and the outside world due to a global virus.



Obviously not everyone has a VR headset. According to a recent Keypoint Intelligence article on the Metaverse, the Oculus Quest 2 has sold around 10 million units—and not all mental health professionals offer exposure therapy. But given the widespread uncertainty and fear that came with the pandemic, it could be worth finding out-of-the-box ways of handling things, even if they were things already in place before the world went askew. We found new ways to work, hold company meetings, connect with people—we should also find new ways to help our mental health.


If you’re experiencing stress or anxiety related to the pandemic, the CDC has suggestions on how to cope. There is no shame in asking for help or seeking ways to work through your troubles with professionals.


And please remember, this wasn’t normal for anyone. It’s okay to feel what you feel.