VR app improves symptoms of 5 common phobias

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A VR app successfully improved the symptoms of five common phobias in a recent study. Credit: max-kegfire/Getty Images.
  • Phobias are a type of anxiety disorder that can be difficult to treat.
  • A new study tested using a virtual reality-based app to treat 126 people with specific phobias.
  • Using the app reduced the average symptoms from moderate to severe to a minimum after 6 weeks.

A phobia is a form of anxiety disorder defined by the American Psychological Association as “a persistent and irrational fear of a particular situation, object, or activity”.

Common phobias areAcrophobia (fear of heights), aviophobia (fear of flying) and arachnophobia (fear of spiders).

While phobias are relatively common — according to the National Institute of Mental Health, 12.5% of adults in the United States will experience a specific phobia at some point in their lives—it can be difficult to treat.

exposure therapy, a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) aimed at exposing the person to their fear in a safe environment, is often the first line of treatment for specific phobias. However, exposure therapy can be difficult to access, can cause discomfort, and is associated with high dropout rates.

In a new study by University of Otago in New Zealand, researchers tested an app-based virtual reality (VR) system to treat certain phobias.

Published in Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatrythe results show that the self-guided VR system reduced the severity of symptoms for five different phobias.

The study, a 6-week randomized controlled trialaffected 126 adults living in New Zealand with one of five phobias:

  • fear of flying
  • fear of heights
  • scared of spiders
  • afraid of dogs
  • fear of needles.

Another group of people were on a waiting list for treatment.

Participants needed to have access to a smartphone and the internet to use the VR app named oVRcome. The app was paired with a VR headset to allow participants to experience 360-degree virtual environments.

This type of therapy can have important advantages compared to real exposure therapy, dr John Francis leadera psychologist who develops a Mixed reality therapy room at University College Dublin Medical news today.

“Traditionally, therapeutic work with phobias using exposure therapy required that the scene be physically recreated. Physically going to a place or having access to a specific phobic stimulus can prove challenging from a resource perspective, and the variables can be harder to control,” he said.

The app consists of six different modules – psychoeducation, relaxation, mindfulness, cognitive techniques, exposure through VR and relapse prevention – which the participants worked through over 6 weeks. Participants were also able to choose the level of exposure to their phobia using a library of different VR videos.

To assess changes in symptoms, the researchers used the Severity for Specific Phobia – Adult by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). This is a 10-point scale that rates the severity of a specific phobia in adults. The measures include the frequency of experiencing sudden moments of terror, the feeling of fear, worry or nervousness as well as physical symptoms such as tachycardia and muscle tension.

Of the 126 people who started the study, 109 completed the study at week 6.

Researchers say this suggests the app has high adoption and could be used to help people who don’t have or don’t want access to in-person exposure therapy. The app is also inexpensive, meaning it could be more accessible than other, more expensive forms of treatment.

study author dr Cameron Lacey declares that the “[l]The levels of exposure therapy could be tailored to a person’s needs, which is a particular strength.”

“The more traditional personal exposure treatment for specific phobias has a notoriously high dropout rate due to discomfort, inconvenience, and lack of motivation in people seeking fears to expose themselves to,” he notes. “With this VR app treatment, study participants had more control over how they exposed their fears, as well as control over when and where the exposure occurred.”

The researchers also found a significant improvement in symptoms among those who used the app compared to those on the waitlist.

The mean severity decreased from 28/40 (moderate to severe symptoms) to 7/40 (minimal symptoms) at the end of the study.

“The improvements they’ve reported suggest that there is great potential for using VR and mobile apps as a means of self-directed treatment for people struggling with often debilitating phobias,” says Dr. Lacey.

Some people left comments about changes in behavior as a result of using the app, including a person with a fear of needles who said the app helped them book their COVID-19 vaccination. Another participant said they could have booked flights to see family and spent less time worrying about flying.

oVRcome is now available for 10 specific phobias as well as social anxiety.

dr Leader tells MNT however, the potential of this approach reminded us that it will be important to ensure proper safeguards and processes are in place to support users.

“The unique feature of this study is that the approach focuses on self-directed support to treat phobias rather than the use of experiential technology administered by a practitioner. This offers great range advantages; However, more research needs to be done to understand the limitations of performing psychological interventions for phobias without professional supervision.”

– dr John Francis leader

Finally, it’s also important to note that oVRcome is a commercial, for-profit initiative and people who want to use the app to address their phobias have to pay a monthly subscription fee.

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