How virtual reality therapy is being used to treat fears and phobias
Most of us have something that we are afraid of, whether it be spiders or heights, but once this fear becomes a phobia it can have a profound affect on a person’s life. Doctors and therapists are now using virtual reality as a way to help people cope with their phobias. This page explain how virtual reality therapy for fears and phobias is an effective treatment being used by a growing number of people.
What are phobias?
Phobias are a fear of a specific thing or situation, such as a fear of spiders or a fear of flying. Approximately 19 million Americans are affected by phobias. Phobias can develop after an event the person has experienced, such as a fear of driving after being in a car accident, or from seeing something second-hand, like a highly publicized plane crash.
With the internet and constant news coverage, there is no end to the stories and videos a person can watch about terrifying accidents and events. For some phobics, however, there is no known reason for their fear. Most treatment plans for phobias involve exposure therapy to expose the patient to their fear in a controlled way so that, over time, they are no longer afraid. This process works by using the limbic system, which regulates emotions, and showing the brain that there is nothing to fear from a harmless spider or a tall building.
What is virtual reality therapy?
Virtual Reality Therapy (VRT) is the use of virtual reality (VR) technology in the treatment of pain management, as well as issues like anxiety and depression and phobias. By using VR, users are dropped into a virtual environment and fully engrossed in the experience. Most VR experiences involved a head-mounted display, headphones for sound or music, often with noise-cancelling properties, a rumble pad, and joystick or other navigational tool to move through the virtual landscape. Head-tracking systems help to surround the user in the virtual world and make the experience truly immersive. By including stimuli that engage the visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory systems, VR is distinctly different from watching movies or TV, or even playing 2D games whether handheld or on a console. While it was originally developed for entertainment, new applications for virtual reality are being discovered all the time.
Virtual reality therapy for fears and phobias
There are a number of companies that have created VR environments in order to treat phobias and help sufferers deal with their fears. The Virtual Reality Medical Center helps patients handle their fear of flying with airplane seats and a sound system to help create a believable VR flight. Virtually Better specializes in helping with flying, heights, public speaking, and storm phobias. The list goes on and on, and the technology continues to get better.
One study took 75 participants who had a fear of flying and assigned them to three different groups: the first completed virtual reality therapy where they experienced a virtual flight, the second involved in vivo therapy (meaning participants were exposed to a real airplane flight), and the third was placed on a wait list and received no therapy. The therapy sessions involved four sessions of anxiety management training before they were exposed to the virtual reality or in vivo flights for six weeks, and the participants were then followed up with six and twelve months after. The study found that VRT was by and large equivalent to in vivo exposure therapy, showing that it is a viable option for treatment. They also found that after 12 months, 70% of both the virtual reality and in vivo groups maintained their lower anxiety levels while flying.
As virtual reality becomes more accessible, even students are able to come up with their own programs for beating phobias. Paul Thurston and Bryce Mariano are students at Santa Clara University in California who created a program using an Oculus Rift headset to help people who have acrophobia, or a fear of heights. The environment includes rooftops and other high places for now, with suggestions to allow therapists to be able to adjust heights whenever they need to. As the headsets only cost about $350, it is possible for people besides large technology companies to create programs that can help with anxiety and phobias.
Benefits of virtual reality therapy for phobias
While in vivo exposure treatments work, they are not always the best practical for treating phobias. For example, unless someone is very dedicated and has a high income, taking a flight every week may not be feasible when treating a flying phobia. It can also be difficult for the therapist to fully control the scenario if they are taking their clients out and about in order to conquer their fears. Imagine going with your therapist to work on your fear of tall buildings and running into someone you know. This can become an awkward situation and the patient may be less inclined to work on fighting their phobia.
Virtual reality lets the patient experience without the inconvenience that in vivo exposure brings. Patients that have a fear of flying, for example, can repeat the same moments of boarding, take off, or landing over and over without having to buy multiple plane tickets. It can also be easier for phobics to encounter a virtual representation of their fear at first, rather than the real thing. Seeing a virtual spider will be less anxiety provoking than being shown one in a glass tank.
Weaknesses in using virtual reality therapy for fears and phobias
While virtual reality works for most, there are some that have a more difficult time immersing themselves in the virtual world. Being on a fake plane won’t be enough to evoke feelings of fear and anxiety for those that are less likely to believe in a virtual representation. Virtual reality is also not the end destination to cure phobias, it is merely a tool to help patients cope with their fears and give them the ability to face them in real life.
As virtual reality gets more life-like and advanced, it is quickly becoming a very useful tool to help those that suffer from fears and phobias. The ability to be gradually exposed to the fear-inducing object or situation, while remaining safe, enables the phobic to begin to manage their fear and eventually conquer it completely.
Please visit our Find A Therapist page for information on treatment centres offering virtual reality therapy for fears and phobias.