Virtual reality and social phobia

Social phobia is defined as a fear of social situations, for example public speaking, where the sufferer imagines that they will embarrass themselves or commit some type of social faux pas. They dread talking in front of others for fear of looking foolish or saying the wrong thing and worry about how they are viewed by others.

But this phobia can be treated using virtual reality. This article discusses the symptoms of social phobia and how virtual reality is used to overcome these so that the sufferer can function normally. This article discusses how virtual reality is used to treat social phobia.

What do we mean by ‘function normally?’ The problem with social phobia is that the affected person stops doing the normal everyday things that we take for granted. They find it difficult to meet new people, deliver a presentation or engage in normal conversation for fear of embarrassing themselves. This causes them to avoid social situations such as public speaking which then limits their activities and opportunities, for example meeting new clients at work.

Virtual reality treatment for social phobia

What virtual reality does is to place the affected person in a virtual environment where they are exposed to the source of their phobia. They wear a head mounted display (HMD) with earphones and a tracking system which enables them to see and hear events in this environment. The tracking devices records and analyses their head movements as they do so.

A typical scenario is where the affected person experiences a public presentation: they are shown a virtual audience and a prepared speech which they deliver to a virtual audience. This is done in conjunction with feedback from their counsellor who also monitors their physical and emotional responses.

The aim is for the affected person to gradually become accustomed to public speaking through repeated exposure. The more times they are placed in this situation the better they will cope with it which also removes the fear and anxiety. A virtual reality set up such as this can be modified according to the level of stress and anxiety with the aim of gradual familiarisation with what was considered a stressful situation. Once the person has become used to this situation they no longer see it as a threat which then removes the feelings of dread and social anxiety.

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