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VR in the Medical World: Phobias

by Beth Divine 21 Oct 2018

Virtual reality is one of those media that is thought of as something fun, an amusement form – entertainment not something important or serious or really useful. But this is to dismiss virtual reality too easily. The technology is finding its way into the mainstream, and the medical world is finding more and more ways to use it with treatments that would otherwise cost too much or be too impractical.

One place where virtual reality is finding excellent use is in the psychological field. Anxiety and phobias are often a course of amusement to those who do not suffer from the conditions. Anxiety can be debilitating, making the sufferer feel too upset to leave their house, look after themselves properly or interact with other people.

Phobias are very similar to anxiety, except they tend to revolve around a very specific trigger – heights, cramped spaces, even obscure things like buttons or rain. A phobia is an irrational fear, so there is little the sufferer can do to control their condition without medical intervention.

Most phobia therapies work by exposing the sufferer to the trigger of their fear, a little at a time, often with anti-anxiety medication and the assistance of a coach to talk them through the process. Obviously, this is very time consuming and expensive – and it is not guaranteed to work. Some phobias are so firmly entrenched that they can only be managed rather than cured,

This is where virtual reality comes into play. With a virtual reality headset, the patient can be set into any location surrounded by whatever triggers that can been programmed into the footage.

A recent study looked at the case of Fay, a now-48-year-old woman, who experienced the sudden onset of acrophobia, or fear of heights, when she was in her 30s during a high ropes exercise. Until then, she had been fine with heights, not giving them a second thought, but there was something in the exercise that triggered an extreme fear response. The problem gradually escalated over time, peaking when she couldn’t even take her seat at a much-anticipated Take That concert, not because of the height but because of the terror that she would be inexorably sucked down.

Fay was invited to take part in a trial treatment using virtual reality, along with 43 other people. Of the 44 members, half were in the control group, and Fay was unfortunately one of those. This meant that she did not get to experience the treatment. The end result of the trial were promising: all of the control group still had their fears, but as many as 70% of the active group were cured of their fear.

Fay was offered the chance to try out the therapy following these promising results, and she leapt at it. She was talked through a series of fun and challenging exercises, each involving heights in some way, for example, collecting fruit from tall trees, or hunting for treasure on cliffsides. Fay would have felt in control, thanks to having a voice coach in the program to talk her through what she was meant to do. Her treatment was a complete success, and Fay now has a new lease on life. And she is looking forward to booking her next Take That concert, certain in the knowledge that she will have no problems taking her seat!