Virtual reality in phobia treatment

Man with phobia wearing virtual reality glasses

The treatment of phobias is one area where virtual reality is proving to be very useful. Phobias are extreme reactions – usually an anxiety or panic attack – to a particular situation or object which is often out of proportion to the potential threat it poses. In some cases their reaction is so extreme that it impacts upon the sufferer’s everyday life. Many people with a phobia actively avoid the source of their condition.

This article looks at how virtual reality is used to treat people with a phobia with the aim of enabling them to live a normal life.

List of phobias

There are numerous phobias but we have concentrated on the more common (and not so common!) ones which include:

  • Aerophobia
  • Social phobia
  • Claustrophobia
  • Acrophobia
  • Arachnophobia
  • Agoraphobia
  • Trypanophobia
  • Tonitrophobia
  • Fear of driving

These are all discussed as a series of individual articles. Some of these will be more familiar than others but what they all have in common is a sense of fear or dread and an expectation of the worst case scenario. Virtual reality can help in all of these cases.

Virtual reality and CBT

Virtual reality is one of several methods which form part of computerised cognitive behavioural therapy (CBBT) which uses technology to treat a range of disorders. CBT is a particular form of therapy which encourages the sufferer to talk through their problems to change negative beliefs into positive forms of action.

The affected person makes notes of their thoughts and behaviours in response to a particular event, e.g. being outside, which are then analysed. The aim is to challenge existing thoughts and behaviours – which are responsible for their disorder – into new ways of thinking and acting which will then ease their condition.

Cognitive behavioural therapy involves a face to face discussion with a counsellor or a group session but CCBT replaces that with a computer interface. A virtual reality set up is suited to those people who are uncomfortable with talking about their condition with another person but find it easier to explore their condition in a virtual environment.

The sufferer wears virtual reality glasses which display a series of images as part of a virtual environment. This is connected to a desktop computer and input device.

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