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Virtual Reality for Phobia Treatment

February 7th, 2023

Category: virtual reality

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Posted by: Team TA

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Fear is a natural part of everyone’s existence; no one is immune to it. Often, we confuse fear and phobia. Let’s clear things up. Not every fear is a phobia. A phobia is when fear takes over all our senses to the point where it’s hard to live a normal life. Psychiatrists and psychologists worldwide have tried many different therapies, treatments, and methods to help people get rid of these terrible fears and find a cure for those crippled by phobias. Here’s where virtual reality for phobia treatment has finally found a way to help. Recent research from the University of Otago found that after six weeks of treatment, phobia symptoms dropped by 75% in a randomized, controlled trial of 129 people that lasted six weeks.

This article explores VR’s new influence in the treatment of phobias, exposure therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) tracing the word and meaning of phobia, the significance of the new research, and the future of VR in psychiatry.

Phobia- Things to Fear and Loathe

Around 264 million people around the world have anxiety disorders according to a recent study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Almost every one of us has at least an irrational fear or two, whether it’s of spiders, public speaking, or something else. These fears are almost minor for most people because they do not affect or interfere with their daily routines or lives. On the other hand, when these fears become so severe and interfere with normal life, they become a phobia. Phobias are intense fears of something, maybe of heights, closed spaces, needles, spiders, and so on. Phobias, unlike minor fears, can disrupt your normal daily life, making you anxious and terrified and going to great lengths to avoid them, which can cause great mental and emotional discomfort.

According to Harward Health, a phobia is a constant, excessive, continual, unrealistic fear of an object, person, animal, activity, or situation. It is a type of anxiety disorder. A person with a phobia either tries to avoid the thing that triggers the fear or tolerates it with great anxiety and distress.

Irrational Conflict

Well, it’s very difficult for people suffering from phobias to carry on their lives normally. For example, some phobias, like acrophobia (fear of heights), can cause trouble for a person and can be triggered by looking out the window of an office building or by driving over a high bridge. The fear of small, enclosed spaces (claustrophobia) can be triggered when riding in an elevator or when using a small, confined restroom. People living with these phobias may need to drastically alter their lives. In extreme cases, the phobia may even dictate the person’s employment, job location, driving route, recreational and social activities, or home environment. Just imagine a person not taking a lucrative job offer because he is claustrophobic and afraid of the elevators, or your fear of heights making you go to great lengths that you spent a lot of time avoiding that tall bridge taking the longer route to your office. These can cause major inconveniences to your daily life and those around you.

Many people are focused on getting help and easing out of these phobias to lead a satisfied and phobia-free life. But that’s not the case with most people. They often find it hard to find an accurate psychologist to go to. Even after finding the best and perfect psychologist, facing your fears is daunting, and many people may not be up for it to face their fears in real life before them. The first line of treatment for specific phobias is often exposure therapy-a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that aims to expose the person to their fear in a safe environment. However, it can be difficult to access, may cause discomfort, and often lead to high dropout rates. From this concern comes a new study.

Virtual Reality for Phobia Treatment

Recently a study was conducted by the University of Otago in New Zealand, led by Associate Professor Cameron Lacey, from the Department of Psychological Medicine to study phobia patients using a headset and a smartphone app. The treatment program consisted of Virtual Reality (VR) led 360-degree video exposure therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Participants of the trial had to download a fully self-guided VR app called oVRcome, developed by tech entrepreneur Adam Hutchinson. The app is connected to the headsets of individuals to treat their phobias. The simulations from the mobile app expose the participants to their specific phobias in short bursts, to build up their tolerance and confidence in a clinically approved and controlled way. The university conducted the study on 129 people aged between 18-64 in a six-week randomized control trial in May and December 2021 and found improvements in their fears.

Positive Impact

Good progress was noticed in all the participants and there were no member withdrawals due to intervention-related adverse events. One person who has the fear of flying felt confident enough to book an overseas family holiday, another who was afraid of needles lined up bravely for a Covid vaccine, and another reported gaining confidence to face spiders after the therapy. The app program consisted of standard CBT components including relaxation, mindfulness, psychoeducation, exposure through VR, cognitive techniques, and a relapse prevention model. Unlike traditional exposure therapy, participants were able to select their exposure levels to their phobia from a large library of VR videos.

A Cost-Effective Solution?

Of the 129 people who started the trial, 109 were able to complete the study at week 6. According to the researchers, this indicates the high acceptability of the VR app and could be used to help those who cannot or are reluctant to access in-person exposure therapy. The app is also cost-effective, as it doesn’t use any high-end VR devices but uses a smartphone and a VR headset. This also means it could be more accessible than other, more expensive forms of treatment.

Study author Dr. Cameron Lacey says,

“the traditional in-person exposure treatment for phobias has a notoriously high dropout rate due to inconvenience, discomfort, and a lack of motivation in people. With VR app treatment, individuals have increased control of exposure to their fears and control over when and where exposure occurs.”

The researchers concluded that this trial was novel, due to the availability of the app and headsets, which are cost-effective, and multiple phobias were tested at once. The public demand to take part in the trial was unprecedented, demonstrating the rising need and desire for phobia treatment in society. The past VR studies were expensive due to the high-end devices which were only available in research and clinical settings. Earlier a Dutch study examined a low-cost VR Dutch-language program using animated imagery that demonstrated improvement in fear-of-height symptoms, however, it could solve only one kind of phobia.

New Smart VR Apps for reducing phobia

The potential of VR technology for mental health research, assessment, and treatment is high, enabling researchers and clinicians to bring real-life experiences into a risk-free lab environment. Although the reliability and validity of the traditional methods of measuring physiological responses have been tested extensively, they lack ecological validity and do not represent the complexity of real-life experiences. Innovative VR app development solutions for psychiatric assessment rectify this drawback and allow measurement of real‐time cognitive, emotional, physiological, and behavioral responses to various “real‐life” situations while enabling experimental control. The implementation of VR technology in daily clinical practice has come within reach as VR head-mounted displays have become increasingly popular and affordable. A substantial number of studies have been conducted to confirm the safety of using VR solutions with people experiencing psychosis and to evaluate the psychological mechanisms triggering the onset and maintenance of psychotic symptoms.
Virtual Reality and Psychiatry: The Way Forward

The use of VR technology solutions for psychiatric and physiological treatments is still in its infancy, but studies prove that VR-assisted therapy can be a powerful tool to help people break the tendency of avoidance involved in the maintenance of symptoms and develop new skills and strategies to cope with them. VR can be the driving force behind more immersive and expansive treatment of many phobias and mental health issues and an agent of change in how we approach mental healthcare. Now, the question is, how do we push these innovations forward? We help you to find the answers through our comprehensive and state-of-art virtual reality app development services.

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