According to a new Oxford University study, VR therapy may be just as effective as individualized counseling in helping people overcome their fear of heights.
Led by Daniel Freeman, PhD, DClinPsy, the study enlisted a total of 100 volunteers with clinically diagnosed acrophobia to undergo VR therapy for their fear. Of the 100 volunteers, 49 were selected to originally receive six virtual reality therapy sessions over the course of four weeks. During the sessions, participants wore a VR headset and were guided only by a “virtual coach” as they rescued a cat stuck in a tree, walked on a ledge over a huge drop off, and faced other anxiety-inducing situations designed to allow them to confront their fears head on in a controlled setting.
As Freeman said, “the beauty is that the conscious awareness that these are simulations allows people to try things that they would be wary of in real life.” By confronting their very real fears in a safe setting, many of the participants who received the VR treatment saw overwhelmingly positive results. Half of the volunteers who received treatment dropped 25 points on an acrophobia questionnaire–improving from a severe fear to a moderate fear of heights. Participants who did not receive the treatment failed to see an improvement in their scores, but were given an opportunity to receive treatment after the experiment had concluded.
While six 30-minute VR sessions could hardly eradicate decades of the phobia–on average, participants had suffered with a fear of heights for around 30 years–it gave participants a new found confidence to conquer their emotions. “Afterwards, people even found they could go to places they wouldn’t have imagined possible, such as a walk up a steep mountain, going with their children on a rope bridge, or simply using an escalator in a shopping center without fear,” said Freeman.
Freeman doubts that VR will replace therapists in the future, but this trial provides promise for effective, low-cost treatment for low-income and marginalized individuals for whom individualized, in person treatment is often unattainable. The success of this trial will likely open doors for further exploration into VR therapy for mental conditions across the spectrum.
Image Credit: Steam