Have you noticed that there’s less "tsk-tsking" going on about how technology is dehumanizing our world? I have, and I think one reason this is so is that every day seems to bring a new example of some intriguing technology that dramatically improves our lives in one way or another. The latest? Therapists are using virtual reality (VR) technology to help people overcome crippling phobias -- such as the fear of heights, storms, public speaking, even spiders!
Imaginative Approach, Real Benefits
A study from Emory University in Atlanta, published in Behavior Therapy, found that VR helped about 76% of patients overcome their fears, making it as effective as traditional exposure therapy (where the therapist helps the patient confront the anxiety-provoking experience directly). I called Cynthia D. Jones, MS, LPC, a counselor at Duke University Faculty Practice in Psychiatry who runs the VR Therapy program there. She described the VR as being like "exposure therapy with a kick." She finds it works fast, too. "Most patients need only three or four sessions," she said, adding "I had one patient overcome fear of flying and be ready to fly after one session!"
Jones believes that the unique method of delivery is a key reason that the therapy is so successful, explaining that it seems to help break down the stigma around a phobia and turns it into "an interesting project." Patients get to learn about themselves and their bodies’ reactions in a safe, private environment, avoiding the stress and potential embarrassment of having a panic attack in public. She likens it to using training wheels to learn to ride a bike, noting that "eventually the training wheels come off, but not until the rider feels ready." Another advantage: The phobia-causing activity can be repeated as often as needed, even during a single session. In contrast, a plane can only take off and land once each flight -- plus, flying is expensive!
Still Not Easy...
That isn’t to say this treatment is as fun and easy as playing a video game. According to Jones, the virtual exposure still brings on physiological symptoms such as rapid heartbeat and sweating. Patients are taught new skills that help them to bring their bodies and minds back down from the anxiety, learning to create a new behavioral response to the situation that gradually replaces the fear. An important benefit: The VR experience lets the therapist watch how the patient reacts at specific points during the simulation, which is helpful in identifying the "root" issue.
VR therapy is not appropriate for everyone. For instance, if you have a seizure disorder, the VR screen can be overstimulating. If you typically suffer from motion sickness, the simulation of movement in VR therapy can bring on nausea.
However, if you suffer from a phobia and are intrigued by this form of treatment, it’s certainly worth checking out.
Cynthia D. Jones, MS, LPC, mood disorder counselor, Duke University Faculty Practice in Psychiatry, Durham, North Carolina.