New era in virtual reality therapy for common phobias
Dick Tracey didn’t have to visit a tall building to get over his fear of heights. He put on a virtual reality headset.
Through VR, he rode an elevator to a high-rise atrium that looked so real he fell to his knees.
“I needed to search with my hand for something solid around me,” he said.
He told himself, “I must look stupid. Let’s just stand up. Nothing’s going to happen.”
Virtual reality therapy can help people like Tracey by exposing them gradually to their greatest terrors. The technology is just now reaching the mainstream after 20 years of research. Equipment is lighter and more affordable, with tech advances spilling over from the gaming industry to help people fight disabling fears of flying, heights, spiders or dogs.
And the surge in products is bringing VR to more therapists’ offices. Experts predict people with mild phobias will treat themselves successfully at home.
Research shows VR therapy can lead to real-world gains for people with phobias, and works as well as traditional exposure therapy, which slowly subjects patients to what causes anxiety for them.
For Denver librarian Nick Harrell, VR was a booster shot after traditional therapy for fear of flying. Panic drove him off a flight to Paris two years ago.
“I don’t like being locked in the metal tube,” Harrell explained. “I couldn’t breathe. My chest was pounding.”
With help from a therapist, Harrell first faced his fears through exposure therapy. Elevators, buses and trains were good practice for airplanes.
“Within a matter of months, I was flying again,” Harrell said.
With VR recently added to his therapy, Harrell keeps fears in check. His health insurance covers the cost with a small copay.
But few people with phobias seek treatment. Too embarrassed to get help, many plan their lives around avoiding their fears.
Tracey of Oxfordshire, England, avoided heights, from ladders to breathtaking vistas. Escalators gave the 62-year-old retiree heart palpitations. His wife walked between him and steep slopes.
Tracey’s VR therapy was part of a study . He was one of the first to try a VR world with an animated virtual coach. University of Oxford psychology professor Daniel Freeman developed the program for an Oxford spin-off with support from the National Health Service.
Freeman’s team is now at work on a VR world where people with schizophrenia can practice being in a cafe, elevator or store.
“Many of our patients are withdrawn from the world,” Freeman said. The fear-of-heights VR program shows you can automate treatment.
What is VR? Put on a headset and look around. You’ll see a simulation of an interactive, three-dimensional environment. Look up and you’ll see the sky; look down and your own hands and feet may come into view.
With exposure therapy, a therapist can accompany a person who’s afraid of heights to a tall building. With VR, a patient learns to feel safe on a virtual high-rise balcony, without leaving the therapist’s office.
The best studies on VR exposure therapy have been small with fewer than 100 patients. Increasingly VR therapy will be delivered at home via the internet, said Katharina Meyerbroker, a researcher at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.