Reality Treatment Helps to Overcome Fear of Height: Study Says

Donna Miller
July 15, 2018

Patients wore VR headsets that immersed them in a virtual world where, guided by an avatar "coach", they were encouraged to face their fears.

The authors identified some limitations, such as the lack of a direct comparison between now utilized psychological treatments for phobias (counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy or psychotherapy) and the automated VR therapy.

"The treatment was not designed as exposure therapy (i.e., participants were not asked to remain in situations until anxiety reduced), but rather, as repeated behavioral experiment tests - i.e., to learn that [participants] were safer than they had thought", the authors explained. However, more research is needed to understand how automated therapy would apply in other conditions, including more severe mental health disorders such as psychosis, where therapy is now delivered by experienced mental health professionals. One group of 49 people was treated with fully automated VR in approximately 6 sessions of 30 minutes each, held over two weeks, while the other group of 51 people received no treatment.

In previous research, people with a fear of heights used virtual reality training in sessions with a therapist. Other tasks also included rescuing a cat from a tree, playing a xylophone near an edge, and throwing balls over the edge of a drop. No participant reported any adverse event.

"Immersive virtual reality therapies that do not need a therapist have the potential to dramatically increase access to psychological interventions", says lead author Professor Daniel Freeman, University of Oxford, UK. Earlier this year the team successfully bid for £4 million of funding from The National Centre for Health Research (NIHR) which is to be used for the creation of VR therapy for mental health [VIDEO] issues.

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Thanks to a new method of psychotherapy was able to reduce the fear of height by 68% in the first group, while the standard treatment fear decreased only 3.3% in volunteers from the second group. These participants completed a questionnaire to measure their fear, and those who scored over a certain cut-off went on to take part in the trial.

"There are, however, limitations to the study that should be considered before this treatment can be provided as part of routine health care. This is often impractical in face-to-face therapy, but easily done in VR".

"The beauty of VR in all of this is that people know it's not real, and therefore they're much more likely to try a thing", said Dr. Freeman about the benefits of the program, adding that "some people really do not want to see a therapist".

'I feel I'm making enormous progress'. Oxford VR contributed funding to the study.

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