VR Therapy for Phobias

VR Therapy for phobias helps people learn to manage the symptoms of their underlying phobia, just like traditional exposure therapy. In VR therapy, the individual is immersed into a virtual environment that allows for sensory exposure to the fear-producing stimuli using a computer-generated display. Individuals can face their triggers in a safe and private environment, where their therapist controls the intensity and duration of the stimuli, and provides guidance and coaching as appropriate.

Related: How a VR therapy session works

Virtual Reality Therapy has been proven effective for treatment of phobias, including:

  • Fear of Heights (Acrophobia) – For Acrophobia (fear of heights) it is particularly difficult to obtain an optimum environment in which to conduct traditional exposure therapy, and very difficult to control the exposure variables. Safety is another consideration, as exposure on the roof of a tall building or on the edge of a cliff is not warranted when the individual’s phobia response is panic attack or sensations of suffocation. VR exposure therapy overcomes the issues of safety, control of variables, management of the phobia response and the avoidance response.
  • Fear of Flying – Individuals with fear of flying may experience a wide range of symptoms, from slight discomfort at takeoff to real terror when thinking about boarding a plane. Many variables may affect the intensity of the fear: size and type of aircraft, seat location, airplane noises, turbulence, atmospheric conditions, time of day, season of the year, flight delays and reasons, take-off and landing, duration of the flight, companions, et al. In this context, VR therapy is an especially appropriate tool. Real-life exposure is too complex and expensive — in terms of time, money, and effort — and it is impossible to perform graduated exposure in real life. With VR exposure, the therapist can control the different variable, making it the best treatment for Fear of Flying.
  • Fear of Needles – The extreme fear of medical procedures involving injections or hypodermic needles is especially problematic as it causes individuals to avoid medical assistance, refuse medical interventions that are key to health or pregnancies, and even or avoid visiting hospitalized relatives.  During the first few seconds of exposure, there is heightened physiological response (e.g. palpitations, sweating), which is followed by a rapid drop that can lead to dizziness, pallor, or fainting. VR therapy has shown great clinical efficiency as it provides the ideal context to play the fear-inducing situations in a controlled safe way.
  • Fear of Open Spaces (Agoraphobia) – The problems of panic and agoraphobia are quite common. VR therapy is an excellent alternative to traditional exposure therapy for treatment of agoraphobia. Unlike live exposure, VR allows the therapist to standardize and control the exposure parameters, and also permits the exposure to be repeated as many times as necessary. It also avoids the appearance of public panic attacks, losing the risk of reinforcing the existing fear.
  • Fear of Animals – People suffering from fears related to animals usually avoid all situations in which they believe the feared animal may appear, which may lead to serious consequences in their family, social and work life. Among the main fears experienced by people with fear of animals are: the sudden movement of the animal, its physical appearance, or the sounds they emit. Other factors that may influence the emotional response are: the animal’s breed, size and ability to move freely, the distance from the animal, or the fact of being accompanied by others. It is very complicated to carry out live exposure sessions because of the difficulty to control the animal’s reactions, the ability to create specific situations (e.g. killing a cockroach), finding certain species, etc.; moreover, most patients refuse to get involved in live-exposure tasks.
  • Fear of Driving – Fear of driving is a situational phobia characterized by an intense and persistent fear that increases with the anticipation or exposure to the driving stimuli, and causes significant discomfort and serious interference with the daily life of the individual. Traditional exposure techniques are frequently used, but it is very difficult to control factors affect the intensity of an individual’s emotional reaction to driving; e.g. vehicle speed, distance to travel, traffic, weather, road conditions, et al. VR therapy enables standardization and control over the exposure session parameters. Crucially, VR also eliminates the chance of suffering a real life vehicular accident.
  • Fear of Public Speaking – Fear of public speaking generally has negative impact on the academic or professional life of the person who suffers from it. Treatment for this type of phobia is usually based on exhibition techniques combined with relaxation techniques and cognitive restructuring. However, it can be difficult to provide a suitable space and a specific audience for exhibition sessions, and there is no control over factors that impact the session, such as audience reaction. Using VR therapy, the therapist can control these variables as well as integrate different techniques for therapeutic efficacy.
  • Fear of Confined Spaces (Claustrophobia) – Claustrophobia is the fear and avoidance of enclosed spaces, and is characterized by a persistent and irrational fear triggered by being, or the anticipation of being, in enclosed spaces. The symptoms associated with this disorder mimic those of a panic attack, which can include dizziness, falls, vomiting, cardiac discomfort, and others. VR therapy is a good alternative to traditional exposure therapy for the treatment of claustrophobia. Unlike in vivo exposure, virtual reality allows the therapist to have total control over the parameters of the exposure, and may eliminate the risk of reinforcing the existing fear by preventing panic attacks. In addition, the exposure can be repeated as many times as needed which helps to get the most of the therapy.

Related: Virtual Reality Therapy, VR Therapy for Anxiety Disorders