Virtual reality helps conquer fear of heights

Alonzo Simpson
July 15, 2018

"We know that the most effective treatments are active: patients go into the situations they find hard and practise more helpful ways of thinking and behaving".

Participants were positive about the effects of the VR treatment, saying they noticed rapid recovery from initial anxiety when exposed to a height, following the therapy. They were then randomized 1:1, stratified based on fear severity, to either the VR treatment group or usual care, which consisted of no treatment.

The first session has the virtual coach provide a brief overview of the psychological underpinnings of fear of heights and treatment.

Acrophobia, or fear of heights, is the most commonly reported phobia, affecting one in five people during their lifetime, with one in 20 people clinically diagnosed.

Those who took part in the trial totalled 100 with 49 participants undergoing the VR treatment over a two-week period.

In Oxford tested a new method of psychotherapy in which the game in virtual reality helped in the treatment of fear of heights.

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While this form of therapy is cost-intensive in the software development phase, with the need for detailed and constant input from psychologists, programmers, scriptwriters and actors, the costs are significantly low in the long term since it avoids the need for a therapist during each session and makes use of cheap VR headsets.

No adverse events were reported with use of the VR intervention, and approximately 90% of participants completed the full course of treatment.

The authors identified some limitations, such as the lack of a direct comparison between now utilized psychological treatments for phobias (counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy or psychotherapy) and the automated VR therapy. "Our study is an important first step, and we are carrying out clinical testing to learn whether automation of psychological treatment using virtual reality works for other mental health disorders".

"There are, however, limitations to the study that should be considered before this treatment can be provided as part of routine health care".

Prof Freeman said: "When VR is done properly, the experience triggers the same psychological and physiological reactions as real-life situations". The authors note that the treatment was brief, and further benefits could be possible with a longer treatment duration. "This is often impractical in face-to-face therapy, but easily done in VR". "I feel as if I'm making enormous progress, and feel very happy with what I've gained".

This study was funded by Oxford VR, and the National Institute of Health Research Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre.

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