One of the most common ways to treat phobias is with exposure therapy. Phobias are extreme or irrational fears of something...it could be a fear of heights, flying, spiders, public speaking or dogs. Exposure therapy works by slowly exposing you to the feared thing until it no longer provokes a fearful reaction. For example, if you have a fear of dogs, your therapist might start by introducing you to pictures of dogs, then have a dog on the other side of a glass window, then across the room, slowly bringing the dog closer to you.
Exposure therapy is one tool used in cognitive behavioral therapy and has been shown to be effective. The problem is, it isn’t always convenient or possible. Suppose you wanted to overcome a fear of flying. It probably isn’t feasible for you to continually buy airline tickets so you can be exposed to airplane travel. If you are afraid of heights, you might only be able to experience different scenarios by taking “field-trips” with your therapist which can significantly add to the cost of therapy. Virtual therapy brings your fears to you, allowing you to experience fearful situations right in your therapist’s office.
Not all therapists have virtual reality tools in their office but they are becoming more affordable and more common. In 2014, ScientificAmerican.com reported on a virtual reality headset called the Oculus Rift which was built for gaming but could be used in therapy at a price affodable for most therapists. Products such as these will make virtual therapy more accessible.
Virtual reality programs allow the therapist to tailor the exposure program to the specific needs of each patient. For someone with a fear of heights, the program could start with walking across a log and move to climbing a ladder and continue on to standing on a cliff. If you have a fear of public speaking, you can start out with talking in front of a small virtual audience of three or four people and slowly work up to speaking in front of thousands of people. Each step is monitored by the therapist and allows you to move through exposure at your own pace.
Because the virtual reality environment can look cartoonish, you might think that it wouldn’t work; that your mind would quickly pick up that this isn’t “reality.” In the article, “Virtual reality can help people conquer their phobias,” David Cox explains that for those with phobias, the mind triggers fear whether the environment is real or not. For example, he explains, if you are afraid of spiders, your mind will go into phobia mode by triggering a “strong emotional response” to the virtual spider; if you aren’t afraid of spiders, you would instead notice that the spider is not real. It is the perception of danger that triggers the fear, not the actual thing or situation.
There are definitely advantages to virtual reality therapy.
Confidentiality is important to many people. Exposure therapy where a therapist must accompany you outside to face your fears, such as walking across a bridge together to combat a fear of heights, virtual reality allows patients to remain inside the therapist’s office.
Facing a virtual fear rather than confronting the fear in-person, also “feels” safer and more people might be willing to go through with the therapy. Many people use avoidance techniques - staying far away from the feared object or situation - and are not willing to go out in the world to face their fears. To some, facing their fears in the safety of the therapist’s office is much easier.
Because virtual reality programs are controllable, therapists don’t need to worry about the unknown factors of going “out in the world” to help patients face their fears. Through the use of the computer, the therapist has the ability to control the situation from beginning to end, even pulling back if they feel the exposure therapy is moving too quickly.
Virtual therapy also offers the benefit of unlimited repetitions. Suppose you are afraid of flying, it is not reasonable to go on flights every week or even visit the airport each week. You might find you can get on an airplane but aren’t ready for it to leave the ground. Virtual reality allows you to board an airplane repeatedly until you are ready for the next step.
Virtual therapy has been shown to help in overcoming phobias, social anxiety and reducing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Right now, virtual reality programs are expensive and not readily available. Many experts hope this will change over the next several years, bringing this type of therapy to anyone who wants it.
For more on virtual therapy on HealthCentral.com: