Virtual Reality: A New Kind of Therapy?

Everyone has something that they’re afraid of. Some people fear snakes, while others find the dark to be terrifying. The list of things people are afraid of is as unique as the people themselves. One fear that’s very commonly experienced is the fear of heights. Acrophobia, or the fear of heights, is experienced by millions of people in the U.S. at a rate of almost one out of two people. To say that it’s a common fear is a little bit of an understatement, so if you said heights, you’re definitely not alone. This fear, along with many other fears that people experience, can be alleviated through counseling and other therapeutic activities. But today, there’s a new type of therapy that can help those who fear heights, virtual reality.

How Does Virtual Reality Work?

Virtual reality, or VR, has been around for a few decades, but has recently grown popular and made quite the entrance in the world of science and technology. Many different electronic games have been developed with this concept, and it’s becoming more widespread as a way for people to experience online videos and events in a unique and exciting way. Virtual reality usually involves users to have a headset, controller, and headphones to get the full experience. The headphones and headset both work together, allowing the user to see and hear the virtual environment that’s been set up, while the controller allows them to navigate and move through the virtual world.

VR in Therapy

So, how does virtual reality help those who are afraid of heights? Using virtual reality programs in therapy isn’t a new concept. Lots of different programs have been developed specifically for use during therapy sessions. The only difference is the model of design. In the past, therapists would have to guide their patients through the VR landscape by coaching them through the whole session. This method was effective, but has now been perfected into a system where the therapists no longer have to monitor their patients during the session.

Now there’s an animated avatar within the app that does all of that. Not only is this effective for the therapists as it saves them time and allows them to view the data from the session in a remote way, but it’s also beneficial to the therapy patients. This new model of VR therapy allows them to attend a session in their own doctor’s office or even within the comfort of their home without having to attend live sessions. It’s definitely a good option for people who need to see a therapist, but can’t afford the costs or prefer not to have face-to-face sessions.

What Does a Therapy Session for Acrophobia in VR Look Like?

It all starts with the patients putting on their headset and headphones. The animated coach leads the patient through a series of different scenarios involving increasingly high areas. They start off pretty easy, with actions like standing by the edge of a drop off point on a building with the guard rails slowly receding, but eventually work towards having the users ride out on a moving platform to the center of a drop from a 10 story building. The tasks get increasingly difficult, but at the same time the avatar coach keeps encouraging them and shows users that they’re safer than they think around these heights and situations.

How Effective Is This?

Virtual reality sounds like a great option for therapy patients, but it’s only really helpful if you can see results in the amount of fear patients feel afterwards. To test the effectivenessof this new method of therapy, 100 patients who said they were afraid of heights were asked to join a clinical trial. Of those 100 people, 49 of them were giving treatment through VR, while the rest received no treatment. Those who had to go through with VR used the program for six 30-minute sessions over the course of a few weeks.

Naturally, the patients who didn’t receive any treatment felt no difference in the amount of fear they felt around heights. But those who completed their VR sessions had an average of a 30% decrease in the level of fear they felt. These results definitely point to the overall effectiveness of using VR treatment vs. no treatment. Testing still needs to be done in order to compare VR therapy against therapy sessions with an actual therapist, but the results from this test are still very promising.

The Future of VR

While it’s true that VR therapy is effective in relieving some typical anxieties and fears people experience, it would be wrong to assume that this means all therapists are out of a job. Some fears can be addressed and treated with virtual reality, but more complex mental health issues are still better left to trained therapists and psychologists. For now, virtual reality is a great option for helping people get rid of simple fears and common anxieties in a cool and exciting way.


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