College College Mind, Brain, and Behavior TSS

Conquering Phobias Using Virtual Reality

With the emergence of new video game platforms, virtual reality is skyrocketing in use.  However, it’s not only perfect for games: exposure therapy has become increasingly popular in the medical field, and the use of VR might hold the key to treating severe phobias.

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With the emergence of new video game platforms, virtual reality, VR, is skyrocketing in use. However, it’s not only perfect for games: exposure therapy has also become increasingly popular in the medical field- VR might hold the key to treating severe phobias.

Many people are afraid of something, but how many people actually face their fears with the sole objective to overcome them?  For many, facing fears is out of the question- not because they are too afraid, but because they cannot access the object of their fear.  After all, you won’t find many people approaching a lion in the wild to ease their fear of them. This is where virtual reality comes into play.

Virtual reality exposure therapy consists of bringing a patient into a virtual environment that contains their object of terror (1).  Because virtual reality environments is programmed, there is no chance of something unexpected happening, whereas in a natural environment, you have no guarantee that everything will go as planned.  The virtual environment can also be monitored, so a therapist can mark the progress of a patient’s reaction to the environment and their fear (1).

For example, elderly people have many phobias (2).  Most of the phobias are completely natural for the elderly to feel, one of them being a fear of falling.  Falling can result in broken bones or even death in most elderly people because of decreased bone density in an aged adult (4).  The fear of falling is very prominent, and can result in serious consequences to the mind, ranging from reduced quality of life and paranoia to even accidental death (3).

One way to ensure that the elderly are safe while overcoming their fear of falling is to use virtual reality exposure therapy. After the patient is evaluated, they start off walking in a normal environment to establish a control group. Once the patient is able to walk in a typical set-up, the environment changes in difficulty. For example, an island environment, where the ground is sandy and shifting, was used to test the patients’ fear and find ways to overcome it (2). The more they walk in difficult environments, the easier it is for them to face walking in their everyday lives.

The paranoia that builds off fear can completely consume an elderly person’s life. When they are scared of walking, they prefer not to walk anywhere, outside nor in foreign places (2). This fear can limit their daily activity severely, causing other health concerns that stem from this inactivity.

However, virtual reality exposure therapy isn’t just for the elderly; and it shouldn’t be.  People with everyday fears should definitely try exposure therapy because conquering a fear means one less thing that holds you back from your full potential.  Stopping a fear in its early stages can also prevent it from turning into a severe phobia that leaves you mentally crippled.

Taking chances and becoming a bolder version of yourself can be done with technology like virtual reality.  Hugging a virtual spider, peering down the edge of a virtual cliff, or walking on bumpy surfaces in a virtual environment are all small steps one can take to vanquish common and severe phobias and let you live your life fearlessly.



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