Virtual reality and acrophobia (fear of heights)

A fear of heights is very common and is defined as an irrational fear of heights to the extent that it causes the affected person to avoid situations which involve heights, e.g. an office on the top floor of a building.

This is similar to other phobias in that it causes an anxiety reaction or in some cases, a panic attack which is highly distressing for the sufferer. This can force the affected person to restrict areas of their life which may trigger their phobia which can have long term consequences.

This article talks about the use of computerised therapies such as virtual reality to treat a range of phobias, in particular acrophobia. But it is also used to treat claustrophobia, social phobia and agoraphobia which are amongst the most common types of phobias.

Virtual reality treatment for acrophobia

The affected person wears a head mounted display (HMD) complete with a tracking system and headphones. They are shown a series of images as part of a virtual environment which they interact with. For example, the HMD will display a virtual balcony or another similar situation in which the person is placed at a height and appears to be looking down towards the ground.

The tracking system within the headset monitors the movement and position of the person’s head as they look around their virtual environment, e.g. look downwards. As they tilt their head the images change to reflect the change in perception which also adds a sense of realism.

The therapist/counsellor will monitor the person’s physical reactions by means of bio-feedback, such as heart rate, skin conductivity and respiration. This provides data and how the person is reacting to the source of their phobia and the level of stress and anxiety.

The therapist will recommend that the sufferer undergoes this treatment several times so that they become familiar with heights and how to deal with them. They will learn how to change their thoughts and behaviours so that they are better placed to deal with situations such as this.

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