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How Effective is Virtual Reality in the Treatment of Phobias?

In today’s day and age, technology can be a powerful tool in helping people manage their mental health and cope with anxiety. New technology such as virtual reality has been used, particularly in the treatment of phobias, as a safe and convenient form of exposure therapy. Throughout this article, we will look at the traits that characterize a phobia, and explore Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy as a treatment option for phobias.

Defining a Phobia

Specific phobia is an anxiety disorder that is characterized by intense fear of a specific object or situation. A person with a phobia typically goes to extreme lengths to avoid encountering what they fear. For example, an individual with a phobia of needles may avoid necessary medical appointments or procedures due to their fear. The difference between fear and phobia is the extent of impact on daily functioning. Someone with phobia often arranges their life to avoid their fear which can be very limiting.

What is Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy?

As avoidance of a feared object or situation only exacerbates feelings of anxiety in the long run, exposure therapy is an effective way to break this cycle. Engaging in exposure therapy allows an individual to take small steps towards confronting their fears in a safe environment. Exposure therapy can take many forms, ranging from in vivo exposure (facing one’s fear in real life), imaginal exposure, or virtual reality exposure.

In virtual reality exposure, an individual uses virtual reality technology to experience a simulation of their feared situation. Someone with a fear of planes can take a ‘virtual flight’ and face the sights and sounds of being on a plane, all while remaining in the comfort of a therapist’s office. These interventions are powerful; while the brain recognizes it is a simulation, the fight or flight system still becomes activated  as if it is real. Several studies have shown that Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy is just as effective as in vivo exposure in the treatment of severe phobias.

The Benefits of Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy

  1. Virtual reality may seem less intimidating than in vivo exposure. Many individuals with phobias are resistant to the idea of exposure therapy, as it can be unpleasant and trigger feelings of anxiety and distress that they are working overtime to avoid. The idea of beginning exposure virtually often seems more accessible as a starting point to facing one’s fear.
  1. In many situations, virtual reality can be more convenient. While exposures such as hopping on a plane may not be practical, virtual reality provides the option to ‘go on a flight’ without needing to trek to the airport in real life.
  1. Virtual reality allows someone to move at a comfortable pace. A therapist can control the amount of exposure at a time, and pause to help someone work through feelings of anxiety and discomfort along the way. Virtual reality allows an individual to go at a pace they are comfortable with and even repeat exposures several times before moving onto the next level.

By Marie Miguel

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Marie Miguel Biography

Marie Miguel has been a writing and research expert for nearly a decade, covering a variety of health- related topics. Currently, she is contributing to the expansion and growth of a free online mental health resource with With an interest and dedication to addressing stigmas associated with mental health, she continues to specifically target subjects related to anxiety and depression.

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