Virtual Reality Therapy for Phobias
by Amy Bennie
As a self-confessed scaredy-cat, I have read a copious amount of self-help books about overcoming phobias. I have learnt all different methods, from meditating, to tapping my hands, to reciting a motivational mantra to myself.
But the conclusion that every book comes to is that you have to face the phobia in order to overcome it; which is easier said than done. No matter how much I tell myself that I won’t get trapped forever in a lift, my automatic response is to head straight for the stairs unless someone else physically forces me into it. Or upon seeing a spider, I don’t approach it to try and conquer the fear, but run away screaming in a panic instead.
Often for people with phobias, that first step of actually pushing yourself towards the thing that scares you is the worst part. Trying to get someone to get on a plane who is terrified of flying is practically impossible, even though they might find that they aren’t scared at all when they eventually take the leap. This is where VR could revolutionise the way in which we treat people with phobias.
Virtual Reality Therapy
Therapists have been using Virtual Reality as a tool for treating phobias since the 1990’s, however with the technology becoming cheaper and more accessible since the release of Oculus Rift, it is moving to the forefront as the future of phobia treatment, and I for one am really excited about it.
The main problem with anxiety conditions is that the fear is often worse in the patient’s imagination than in reality, and avoidance of the trigger only makes the phobia worse. I am well aware that the chance of getting trapped in a lift and plummeting to my demise is minimal, but I still choose to avoid going in them just in case, and by doing this, I am yet to learn otherwise.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is a technique where patients are gradually exposed to their phobia so that they get used to being in the situation and the body no longer responds with fear. VR is a revolutionary addition to this type of therapy.
San Diego Virtual Reality Centre and The University of Southern California Bravemind Service, are both clinics specialising in treatment through Virtual Reality. While both clinics treat a range of phobias, Bravemind was first developed as a treatment for military professionals suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, an often debilitating and tricky condition to treat.
Virtual Reality Therapy allows clinicians to gradually immerse patients into virtual environments representative of their traumatic experiences. As PTSD is usually a condition that develops in war zones, for obvious reasons, it can’t be freely revisited during normal exposure therapy. VR is an amazing way to recreate the scene that first affected the PTSD sufferer, and the clinician is able to tailor the experience to the individual circumstance, such as a virtual Iraq War and even September 11th tragedy.
According to the Journal of CyberTherapy and Rehabilitation, virtual-reality exposure therapy for PTSD has a treatment success rate of 66 to 90%. With this high a result, VR could easily be a life changing treatment for so many veterans if it was widely provided by healthcare professionals as a routine therapy.
Virtual Reality Therapy at Home
But what about those of us would like the benefits of Virtual Reality therapy but on a smaller scale? Well luckily, with just a smartphone and a head-mounted display, we can all experience the therapy from the comfort of our own home.
At a very basic level, there is DARE 360°. Beginning life as a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy book called The DARE Response, through crowdfunding it has been developed into an app that allows users to have an immersive experience to help overcome anxiety in particular situations. The app can be downloaded onto any device, and simply by plugging in your headphones and watching the videos shot on a 360° camera; it allows you to visually experience the situation that you most fear.
The videos are also narrated by a therapist, giving techniques of how to calm down the panic and irrational thoughts. Although this app isn’t fully immersive virtual reality, I can really see the benefits of having real 360° visuals that trigger the fear, knowing that the therapist’s techniques can be applied when the same situation is faced in real life. And for ease of accessibility, it is a way for the general public to begin to experience the benefits of Virtual Reality Therapy.
Samsung #BeFearless is another brand new app; designed to be used alongside the Samsung Gear Headset it is centred around the phobia of heights and social anxiety. With difficulty levels similar to that of a game, and a pulse monitor, this app gives viewers in-depth VR therapy.
When treating social anxiety, for example, you begin on level 1 with the first experience being a simple interaction with a stranger on a train, you can then up the stakes to a lunch meeting with a CEO and finally build up to making a presentation to a theatre full of people.
Each level rates eye contact and fluidity of speech. When it comes to phobias such as public speaking, practice often makes perfect. The more a person is exposed to facing a room full staring eyes, the less nerve wracking it becomes each time, so this type of app really helps you to become confident being in the difficult situation.
How Does Virtual Reality Therapy Work For Phobias?
Virtual reality works because when you’re afraid of spiders or driving or flying, being immersed in a 3D-simulation of your fear, triggers the same emotional and physical response as it would in reality. VR isn’t changing the way we treat fear; instead, it is doing what every book says, making us confront the fear.
As someone who has an endless list of phobias, I would definitely give Virtual Reality therapy a chance. I can’t see myself even being able to let a virtual spider crawl near me without ripping off the headset, but if it works, it could be life-changing for so many people whose lives are hindered by phobias.
Phobias are all just a response created in your mind. The surprising thing is, that the cure to fixing them may also be in something that isn’t physically real.