CodeChangers STEM Blog post

How Virtual Reality Can Cure Our Reality Part Two

  • Sydney
  • August 31, 2020
  • News

Spiders, airplanes, public speaking, oh my! There are many things that people are afraid of in life—and such fears can be very real for many people. To treat these phobias, therapy is often the go-to treatment to help people get over their anxieties. However, therapists are now finding that Virtual Reality (VR) may be a new efficient and effective way to help people overcome phobias and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Let’s find out how VR is making a difference for these people!

When a patient comes to a therapist for phobias, a type of therapy called, “Exposure Therapy” is often the chosen approach. Defined, Exposure Therapy is essentially “a technique in behavior therapy to treat anxiety disorders. Exposure therapy involves exposing the target patient to the anxiety source or its context without the intention to cause any danger” (Exposure therapy, n.d.). In other words, it exposes the patient to the source of fear itself in hopes to treat him or her. So what if you took this same idea and made it digital? Instead of taking a person with acrophobia (fear of heights) to a high building, just let them experience a digital ledge in the comforts of the office with VR goggles? What if you had them give a public presentation in front of digital avataars instead of real people (Strickland, 2007? Sound like a far fetched idea? Science doesn’t think so. In a study on VR’s effect on acrophobia, subjects were scored somewhere between a scale of 30 (moderate fear) to 80 (severe fear) on an acrophobia questionnaire before being chosen to receive treatment. The study later “reported in The Lancet Psychiatry, [that] at the end of the treatment period, half of the volunteers who got the VR treatment had scores at least 25 points lower than at the outset, while the group that didn’t get the treatment had little change in their scores” (Reuters, 2018). So hey, that sounds like progress to me!

Now, it can be easily argued that “hey it’s digital, it’s not really the real thing. So it can’t be effective.” Alright, fair. Let’s disregard the previously mentioned study for a moment. Can VR really simulate real life? Dr. Rothbaum, a psychiatry professor at Emory University, along with Dr. Larry Hodges, a VR computer scientist from the University of North Carolina, did a project together to see if VR could indeed be effective in helping people. Using acrophobia simulations, they did find that volunteers had real physical reactions to the digital environment—namely “classic signs of anxiety, including an accelerated heart rate and shortness of breath” (Strickland, 2007). Therefore, even though a person was really just looking at a screen, real reactions came out of it. In fact, after regular exposure, the treated volunteers reported “they had purposefully sought out experiences in real situations that tested their fear. These were patients who normally would have avoided these situations at all costs before trying the virtual therapy” (Strickland, 2007). It has also been found that patients are more willing to participate with a virtual environment from the comforts of an office (Strickland, 2007). I mean, I would much rather be exposed to a digital spider before I move on to a real one. Just saying.

Now there are many perks to using VR for treating fear. For example, it is less expensive, protects client confidentiality and doesn’t require leaving the office (Strickland, 2007)! This not only helps practices with their expenses but also could help patients with their money as well. For example, you don’t have to go out into the world to experience the fear (while risking patient confidentiality by treating them outside of the office and forking out the money to experience the situation), and if the VR program allows it, you could customize the scene to the patient which may be especially effective for those with PTSD (Strickland, 2007). In the long run, if VR could effectively and inexpensively provide Exposure Therapy and help people with their fears, this may be an answer that many patients and practices are looking for!

As we progress more and more into technology, the more involved and effective technology can be. VR holds much promise for helping those with phobias and even those with PTSD overcome these fears in real life. However, it should be said that there is much more to go in regards to studies, and in no way does VR replace therapists (Reuters, 2018). However, it may be an answer we have been looking for in regards to treating phobias—even if it is a virtual one.

Works Cited

Dubai Internet City hosts live session on the growing importance of virtual reality in mental wellness. (n.d.). In Zawya. Retrieved from https://www.zawya.com/mena/en/press-releases/story/Dubai_Internet_City_hosts_live_session_on_the_growing_importance_of_virtual_reality_in_mental_wellness-ZAWYA20200722104409/

Exposure therapy. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exposure_therapy

Reuters. (2018, July 25). Virtual reality may help cure fear of heights. In Ahram Online. Retrieved from http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/7/48/308515/Life--Style/Health/Virtual-reality-may-help-cure-fear-of-heights.aspx

Strickland, J. (2007, July 9). How can doctors use virtual reality to treat phobias?. In How Stuff Works. Retrieved from https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/virtual-medicine.htm

Image by Jazna Rossi from Pixabay