Monday, March 4

Virtual reality applied to phobias: how it helps to overcome them

We all, at times, feel fear: it is a basic emotion of the human being. An emotion that has an adaptive function, that of allowing us to protect ourselves when we feel in danger. However, sometimes we feel an irrational and uncontrollable fear of stimuli that represent little or no real danger.

It is about phobias, a class of anxiety disorder that generates discomfort and that significantly limits behavior in various situations of daily life of those who experience it. But that can be treated, and with the great help of new technologies, as will be seen.

There is a huge number of phobias. Some of them are well known, such as the claustrophobia (the irrational fear of enclosures that are too small), the aerophobia (fear of flying), the glossophobia (fear of public speaking) or the social phobia (the fear of being with other people in case it leads to embarrassing circumstances).

Others, on the other hand, are more strange, some almost incredible: the somniphobia (fear of sleeping), the bibliophobia (fear of books and libraries) and the triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13) are some examples. In short, you can develop a phobia towards almost anything.

How many people are affected by phobias? The figures vary a lot depending on the criteria used to calculate it, but the estimates indicate that even 9% of the population usually suffer from some kind of phobia at some point in their lives. About two-thirds of those people who suffer from phobias are women.

Treatment against phobias

Treatments against phobias – like other disorders or problems related to mental health – are mainly of two types: psychological and pharmacological.

The intake of drugs can make sense when it comes to specific circumstances, which the person does not have to face too often. For example, in the case of situational phobiassuch as the fear of traveling by plane or speaking in public.

However, there is no certainty about the possible side effects of certain substances. For example, prolonged use of atenolol and alprazolam – medications recommended against aerophobia – could cause an addiction to benzodiazepines.

Therefore, the most recommended treatments are psychological. In particular, cognitive-behavioral therapy. One of the most used resources is the call exposure techniquewhich consists of the person facing, in a controlled, gradual and repeated manner, the stimuli that produce irrational fear.

In certain cases, that exposure technique is relatively easy to execute. For example, if it is a trypanophobia (irrational fear of needles and therefore of receiving injections) or a amaxophobia (fear of driving cars or other vehicles). It is easy to control the gradual approach of the patient to those elements or actions.

On the other hand, if the origin of the fear is in certain animals, like spiders or dogs, whose will cannot be controlled – at least not completely – the task is complicated. The same if to treat aerophobia it is necessary to travel repeatedly by plane: the treatment can be too expensive.

It is at this point that it appears, as a great ally in the mission to help overcome phobias, virtual reality.

Fight phobias with virtual reality

For the use of virtual reality, special glasses are used that block the vision of the real world and project -through a screen and built-in headphones on the device – images that adapt to head movements.

In this way, an immersive experience is achieved: the person sees and hears things as if they were really there. This makes possible a fully controlled exposure to the stimuli that cause phobias.

A study A recent study by scientists at the University of Otago, Cristchurch, in New Zealand, has verified the success of the exhibition through virtual reality. He worked with 129 adults suffering from five specific phobias different: fear to flyheights, needles, spiders and dogs.

After six weeks of treatment, the participants symptoms reduced by 75% of their phobias. To the point that one of them “felt safe enough to book a family vacation abroad”, when before he could not do it because of the fear of flying.

Another participant was able to overcome his fear of needles and receive a COVID-19 vaccine. And another “reported that now felt safe not only knowing that there was a spider in his house, but possibly he himself or someone in his family could remove it.” so what explained Cameron Lacey, the director of the investigation.

In addition to controlled exposure, treatment included psychoeducation, relaxation, mindfulness and cognitive techniques. In addition, virtual reality can now be accessed through affordable glasses and applications and not high-end, as it was until a few years ago.

Personalized, affordable and private treatments

In any case, it is a new technique that needs new studies that confirm your achievements. A meta-analysis published in 2019 by scientists from Colombia, focused on the use of virtual reality to overcome arachnophobia, pointed out that the work carried out in this field are still scarce.

But the prospects are positive. As pointed out by a Article of Red Cenit, a cognitive development center based in Valencia, in addition to making them more affordable, virtual reality allows personalized treatmentsnot only for each specific phobia but for each patient in particular.

In addition, it allows you to act against practically any phobia, since through glasses and headphones you can reproduce all kinds of stimuli: animals, airplane takeoffs, storms, etc. And in an environment of privacy that prevents the phobia in question from adding modesty for treatment in public places.

An alternative to virtual reality is offered by the so-called augmented reality. In this case, the glasses do not block normal vision but rather add images. In this way, the person sees his real environment, but also, in that same environment, things that are not really there.

For example: a pair of glasses can allow you to see the real room a person is in, but it also shows you on the floor a “virtual” spider or cockroaches”. These techniques could be applied not only for the treatment of phobias, but also for the treatment of disorders of anxiety and panic attacks.

Of course, beyond the possibility of accessing these technologies -both glasses and virtual reality applications available for mobile phones- it is essential that these treatments are by specialized professionals.

Exposure to the stimuli that cause phobias must be not only controlled but also accompanied by other therapeutic measures that lead to healing.

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