In the 2007 horror film house of fears (now streaming on Paon!), a group of teenagers enter the titular haunted house the day before it opens. Once inside, they encounter a gruesome set of horrors leaving some of them dead and others terrified. For many, haunted houses are a fun way to intentionally trigger a fear response. For others, fear is something they experience on a daily basis and it’s anything but fun.
About 8% of adults report having an intense fear of flying; between 3 and 15% suffer from a fear of spiders; and between 3 and 6% have vertigo. Taken together, with people who have a fear of needles, dogs, or a number of other life-altering phobias, chances are you know someone who lives with a fear severe enough to have an impact on his life. You might even have such a phobia yourself.
There are, fortunately, a number of treatments a person can undergo to deal with a debilitating phobia. However, these treatments often require traveling elsewhere and accessing medical care, which is not always available or possible. With this in mind, scientists from the Department of Psychological Medicine at the University of Otago investigated the use of virtual reality to remotely treat severe phobias with digital exposure therapy. Their findings were published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry.
Previous studies on the effectiveness of virtual reality for the treatment of phobias have relied on high-end virtual reality devices that can be expensive and difficult to acquire for the average patient. They also focused on specific phobias. The University of Otago team wanted something that could reach more patients, both in terms of content and access to equipment.
They used oVRcome, a widely available smartphone app that anyone can download from their phone’s app store. The app contains virtual reality content related to a number of common phobias in addition to the five listed above. Plus, since it runs on your smartphone, it can be experienced using any number of affordable VR headsets your phone slips into.
Participants enter their phobias and severity on a scale and are presented with a series of virtual experiences designed to gently and gradually expose the user to their fear. The study involved 129 people between the ages of 18 and 64, all of whom reported the five target phobias. They used oVRcome for six weeks with weekly emailed questionnaires measuring their progress. Participants also had access to a clinical psychologist in case they experienced adverse effects from the study.
Participants received a baseline score measuring the severity of their phobia and were measured again at a follow-up 12 weeks after starting the program. At baseline, participants had an average score of 28 out of 40, indicating moderate to severe symptoms. By the end of the trial, the average score had dropped to 7, indicating minimal symptoms. Some participants even reported that they had overcome their phobia to the extent that they felt comfortable booking a flight, scheduling a medical procedure involving needles, or catching and releasing a spider from their home, all of which they weren’t comfortable doing at first.
Part of what makes the software so effective is the diversity of programming available and the ability for an individual to tailor their experiences to suit their own unique experience. Additionally, exposure therapy is coupled with additional virtual modules including relaxation, mindfulness, cognitive techniques, and psychoeducation.
The team noted that more research is needed, but easily accessible virtual reality tools could potentially bridge the access gap for countless patients who could benefit from treatments in a safe, familiar and controlled environment.
Sure, virtual reality exposure therapy is necessarily contrived, but that’s part of the appeal, and there’s something to be said for technology that allows you to face your fears by literally putting your fears on your face.
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