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VR + Loathing > Investigating the use of tech to help people living with phobias

by | Sep 30, 2022

In Ireland, Lighthouse Psychology, in Co. Waterford’s village of Dunmore East, is out on the forefront of using virtual reality to help patients working to overcome anxiety and phobias.

Many of us might first have met virtual reality through such worthy uses of time as playing Walkabout Mini Golf on an Oculus Quest. It turns out, that virtual reality can also help people too. As well as simulate a cracking game of pitch and putt.

Leaving on a jet plane

A Waterford woman called Aisling was terrified of flying and had not been on an airplane in 15 years, says Dr Chrissie Tizzard, a consultant psychologist at Lighthouse Psychology. But her husband, it turned out, had booked a holiday to Cuba.

Using a VR headset, while sitting in a comfortable armchair, she was able to enter a virtual environment that began in her bedroom packing for the holiday. The gradual exposure, building up over several weeks, ended up with Aisling arriving in Cuba, happy and relaxed. She made her trip in the end.

Northern exposure

Nearly one out of 10 people struggle with phobias, intense and irrational fears that can be debilitating. Exposure therapy has for a long while been the most successful known treatment for this. Exposure therapy might involve real-life exposure to the thing a person has a phobia about – say, spiders or busy traffic intersections if they have been through an automotive accident. This is called ‘in vivo’ therapy. Or it might involve imagining the triggers – imaginal therapy.

In both these cases, the aim is to weaken the neural connections between triggers and trauma. Being exposed to the source of your anxieties without an attempt to cause any danger can, in time, help desensitise you to them. The oculus version, virtual reality therapy “was originally developed to help military personnel based in remote locations with a diagnosis of PTSD,” says Dr Tizzard. For patients with PTSD, VR used to enhance cognitive behavioural therapy has a success rate of 66 to 90 per cent.

It’s also showing promise in treating eating disorders, and
even in pain relief – transporting burn victims to a snowy virtual world reduces their physical pain by between 35 to 50 per cent.

The case of the fake tarantula

And for another, patients are much less likely to refuse exposure therapy that involves a VR headset, than doing it with real spiders. In one study, only three per cent of patients turned down VR exposure therapy, while 27 per cent refused in-vivo exposure, says an article in
the Harvard Review of Psychiatry.

It can help clients “learn and practice anxiety reduction techniques while being exposed to their phobia in a controlled, gradual manner that minimises psychological distress,” says Dr Cathy Tirrell, a clinical psychologist practising in the United States.

But does it really work as well exposing you to VR spiders, if you know they aren’t real? Researchers exploring the question suggest it all works better as VR gets better. When users feel embodied in a virtual world, measuring their physiological responses to being shown, say, virtual spiders show their fight-or-flight responses get completely engaged.

For another, it isn’t a moment too late. And this is because of something that makes us all anxious – coronavirus. “Since the pandemic, anxiety disorders are on the rise,” says Dr Tirrell. And access to in-person treatment “is markedly decreased” meaning there’s more need for telehealth services and innovative forms of treatment through newer technologies. So look for more VR headsets in therapy.

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