How virtual therapy can lead to real-world healing

Virtual reality's promise doesn't end with games and movies. Researchers and doctors are turning to VR for everything from neuroscience to psychiatry to occupational therapy.

Studies have found strapping on a headset can help treat phobias or post-traumatic stress disorder. In some cases, it can be just as effective as real-life exposure therapy.

But new research shows the benefits of virtual therapy go beyond the brain. Dr. Rachel Proffitt is exploring virtual reality games as a tool for occupational therapy, where patients rebuild everyday skills, like reaching for objects on high shelves or brushing their teeth.

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"My focus is getting people back to that full normal-as-possible life after an injury, a disability, some sort of diagnosis," Proffitt said in a recent interview. "It involves the entire body — and I mean the entire body, brain included."

In her lab at the University of Missouri, Dr. Proffitt uses a Kinect camera and a virtual reality headset to gather information while the user plays games to help them recover.

The work patients do might be virtual, but they get the same real-world benefits as traditional therapy — and more. Research shows if you ask people to focus on an external goal, rather than on what they do to reach that goal, they perform better. That's what the game is for.

RELATED: 12 Exotic Healing Foods

12 Exotic Healing Foods
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12 Exotic Healing Foods

SHAPE magazine spoke with Michael Balick, Ph.D., to learn about these exotic plants and there medical benefits.


Feeling under the weather? "Elderberry is my favorite 'flu season plant,'" says Michael Balick, Ph.D., an ethnobotanist and vice president and director of the Institute of Economic Botany at the New York Botanical Garden. "The herb contains anti-viral compounds, which research has shown can help the body fight off illness." Take elderberry extracts during flu season as a preventative measure or right when you feel the flu coming on to relieve symptoms.

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"A soothing and calming herb, chamomile tea is a wonderful way to unwind at night," says Balick, who curates Wild Medicine, an exhibit about medicinal plants. "It helps you relax and can relieve tension in an upset stomach after a stressful day." The European plant also has beauty benefits: Remove chamomile tea bags after they've steeped in hot water, let them cool, and then lay them on red, puffy eyes to reduce inflammation.


Highly regarded by native cultures in the Pacific Islands, kava root contains kavalactones, compounds that may help reduce anxiety. "Kava is said to promote easy conversation and story telling, and to help resolve conflict, all of which helps hold Pacific Island communities together," Balick says. "The initial effects are similar to alcohol but without the negative side effects—people on kava are mellow and calm, not aggressive." In fact, one German study showed that kava reduced symptoms of anxiety as effectively as a pharmaceutical drug during the course of six weeks.

While islanders pound the root to make a water extract, you can find it in capsules, extracts, or tinctures.

Image Credit: the New York Botanical Garden


The calendula flower, a European plant also known as pot marigold, is used in topical treatments to calm skin irritations such as eczema. "Many cosmetic creams that promise to smooth, soothe, or soften skin contain calendula. It's also sold as an oil, which will be diluted by a 'carrier' oil such as olive, jojoba, or coconut oil," Balick says. You can even take the flowers, heat them in water, put them in a light cloth, and apply this to the skin for conditions ranging from insect bites to minor burns and cuts.

Milk thistle

For many years, milk thistle was used in European hospitals to save the lives of victims of poisoning who had eaten the harmful variety of mushrooms. Today this member of the daisy family is primarily prescribed by herbalists for those with compromised livers due to alcohol or drug use. "A compound in the seeds, which you can find in capsule or extract form, strengthens and clears the liver," says Balick, who recommends taking it to protect your liver if you're using strong medications or to alleviate symptoms of a hangover.

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Passion flower

This stunning flower from Central and South America, the source of delicious passion fruit, contains beta-carboline alkaloids—the same compounds found in psychoactive plants from the tropical rain forests of the Amazon such as Banisteriopsis caapi or yage. "Passion flower has just a small amount of these compounds, but that's enough to give it sedative powers so you can relax and fall asleep easily, and it may give you colorful, rich dreams if you drink it at night," Balick says. It can also help relieve anxiety and stress. Look for passion flower in the ingredients list on teas that promote sleepiness or relaxation.


According to Balick, cocoa is one of the best healing herbs. Loaded with antioxidants, it can contribute to cardiovascular health and improve mood by building up a molecule in the brain that promotes happiness, rather than allowing it to be degraded by other natural process of the brain. Balick recommends a small bar of dark chocolate that’s at least 85 percent cacao a day for a therapeutic dose—as good an excuse as any to eat dessert!


For almost three millennia, an extract from leaves of ginkgo trees has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to stimulate blood flow, improve memory, and boost libido. "While scientific evidence is unconfirmed and indeed controversial, some studies have shown that the herb can improve cognition and may be helpful in treating conditions such as dementia," Balick adds. Clinical trials have also examined ginkgo's ability to treat tinnitus (ringing in the ears), asthma, and leg pain, although results have been mixed.


Another sleep-inducing herb, ashwagandha, or Indian ginseng, is found throughout Africa, Asia, and southeastern Europe. "It's known as an 'adaptogen,' meaning it allows the body to fight stress, be more resilient, and adapt more easily to draining events we face throughout the day," Balick says. You can take the root in extract or capsule form when you find yourself in a stressful situation, he adds.
Tonics made from ashwagandha root are also used to combat pain and fatigue in the ancient Indian Ayurvedic healing tradition, while other potential uses for fighting inflammation and infection are still being tested in clinical trials.

Image Credit: the New York Botanical Garden

Fish is an easy protein to turn into a mouthwatering meal! Try these simple, delicious marinades, sauces, rubs and more today.


This gorgeous orange fruit from Central America not only tastes delicious, it's also a powerful aid in digestion and healing. Papain, the main enzyme found in papaya, boosts the level of digestive enzymes in the gut to help break down foods more quickly and easily. "You can purchase it as a capsule or simply eat the fresh fruit more often," Balick says. In addition, papaya can be used to heal cuts, burns, or sores by simply rubbing it on the affected area.


The root of the maca plant has been used for centuries by indigenous Andean cultures in Peru and hit store shelves in the States about 10 years ago. Some research has affirmed traditional beliefs about the powers of maca, such as its ability to help boost energy, increase sexual stamina, and improve fertility. The powder can be blended into smoothies or simply stirred into water, and it's also available in capsules or tinctures.

Camu Camu

Also hailing from the Andes, the camu camu berry is one of the highest sources of vitamin C in the plant kingdom, Balick says. It’s a bit of a cure-all as a folk remedy—it’s said to be anti-depressant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-viral, among other benefits—but no long-term studies have confirmed those uses. However, research has shown that camu camu has great antioxidant powers. Mix the powder into smoothies or water.

Move over blueberries and pomegranates!


"It takes their mind off 'Oh, I just did 10 repetitions of this movement,'" Proffitt says. "They get immediate feedback from the game. They get sparkles and dings when they're successful."

Much of Proffitt's work probably wouldn't be possible if things like headsets and cameras weren't getting more capable and less expensive.

"It would take me two hours to gather all the data that I can get from just 30 minutes of somebody playing this game," Proffitt says. "Things are getting faster. You no longer need a large computer to run the Kinect. It runs on a regular laptop."

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But VR as therapy is a new field, and VR as occupational therapy is even newer. A lot of Proffitt's early research is testing to see what's feasible and what's not, but the results already show her patients are making real-world gains. Eventually, she'd like to see VR therapy in hospitals, clinics and homes.

"I want somebody to get better; I want somebody to improve," Proffit says. "'Now I want you to go into your kitchen and unload the dishwasher. Work on putting that cup up on the high shelf.' The game is sort of that stepping stone to get there."

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