Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy

Instructor: David White
Although it is still in its infancy, virtual reality technology is already offering effective treatment options for those with challenging disorders. Through this lesson, you will learn how virtual reality is applied in mental health treatment and how it can be used to overcome certain phobias.

What is Virtual Reality?

Over the last several decades, advances in digital technology have allowed for the once impossible to become not only possible but also entirely commonplace. In the present day, we're able to make personal phone calls from just about anywhere in the world or pull up information with the push of a button. But while we tend to think of these technologies as being a part of our social worlds, they are becoming increasingly popular tools with therapists and clinicians around the world, thanks to numerous applications for virtual reality.

Virtual reality is a piece of software that allows for a three dimensional simulation of realistic landscapes with which users can interact. Usually these programs require users to experience these simulated worlds by wearing certain pieces of hardware, like gloves, helmets, or sensors.

Virtual reality requires hardware, like a helmet or gloves, which can be cost prohibitive for many people.

Although virtual reality is often thought of or referred to as a kind of gaming technology, it has a number of uses, including flight simulators and education. The technology that allows for virtual simulations is still rather costly and a long way from perfect, but for those suffering from profound phobias and anxiety, virtual reality offers a fascinating treatment option.

Phobias and Exposure Therapy

Most of us have experienced anxiety from time to time, and a few have probably even experienced the crippling feelings of a panic attack. In general, anxiety is a condition that can easily be treated through medication or therapy, or a combination of the two. But what if the anxiety and panic is related to something completely irrational like being buried alive or attacked by sharks? These types of fears are known as phobias, which are characterized as extreme irrational fears, but despite their irrationality, they are no less impactful or crippling than common fears.

Often times, phobias are things that a person would reasonably find stressful but not preventative. Nyctophobia (fear of the dark), for example, is reasonable because when we are thrust into darkness we can't see what's around us or evaluate our safety. In a person with a phobia, this is amplified and the source of fear isn't the darkness itself but what could and likely would be waiting to harm them in the dark.

Typically, extreme phobias can be effectively treated through exposure therapy, a process in which the person is slowly and regularly placed in proximity to the source of their fear until it is no longer stressful or anxiety provoking. A person with nyctophobia, for example, might spend progressively longer periods of time in the dark until they are comfortable. This process can be very slow and follows a certain number of steps leading up to the final stage at which the person should theoretically be rid of the fear.

While exposure therapy can be a very effective treatment for anxiety disorders and crippling phobias, there are many phobias that are so unrealistic that putting someone in that situation would in fact be rather dangerous. Imagine that you have a phobia of snakes (ophidiophobia) that is so strong that it keeps you from going into any non-urban environment. Obviously, exposing a person to a room full of snakes could be very dangerous, which makes virtual reality an excellent alternative to an otherwise unethical treatment.

Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy

Beginning in the late 1990s, while the technology was still in its infancy, researchers began to produce some very encouraging results when using virtual reality to treat phobias and anxiety. By using the technology of virtual reality, clinicians and researchers were able to create simulations of otherwise dangerous situations, which are now referred to as virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET).

More often than not, a person's phobia isn't triggered by the object of anxiety itself, but by the whole scenario. A person with a fear of snakes, for example, has probably played out a particular situation in their head many times in which they are walking in the woods, bitten by a snake, and because they are far from help they simply die in the woods from the bite. Given that, there are a number of factors that could trigger panic, from the sound of rustling bushes to distance from a hospital to the sight of a snake.

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