Virtual reality therapy applied to phobias: what it is and how it works

In psychology, there are many techniques for dealing with phobias, using a wide variety of methodology to achieve this goal.

But with the advent of new technologies, new techniques emerge which incorporate the most advanced technical advances. This is the case of virtual reality therapy applied to phobias, which we will discover in this article..

    What is virtual reality therapy in the treatment of phobias?

    Phobias are one of the most common psychological conditions, as they are estimated to affect 8% of the adult population. It is therefore not uncommon for this to be one of the problems where more techniques have emerged in an attempt to control and eliminate its symptoms. The most recent of all would be virtual reality therapy applied to phobias.

    This therapy is based on the use of virtual reality equipment, with special glasses that incorporate a screen where an image is projected that adapts to the movement of the person’s headThus, you get an immersive experience with the stimulus and the environment you are looking at right now. In this way, one obtains a virtual exposure to the aversive stimulus.

    Unlike other techniques, virtual reality therapy applied to phobias does not really use the element that triggers the fears (whether it is a needle, a dog, an airplane flight or a road to speak in public), but an illusion is generated to represent this stimulus, but of such realism that at the psychological level the subject experiences the same reactions only if it was real.

    Therefore, by performing this treatment with the help of virtual images, we were able to completely credibly simulate the situation generated by the phobia, just as if the real stimulus was present in front of the person, therefore the results obtained are also valid. . And extrapolable to a person confronted with these stimuli.

    Benefits of virtual reality

    Live exposure has traditionally been used as the usual technique for dealing with irrational fears. In contrast, virtual reality therapy applied to phobias it offers a number of advantages that cannot be found when talking about the traditional exhibition. Let’s see each of them.

    1. Control

    The first point in favor of virtual reality that we come across is the control of the stimulus possessed by the therapist, unthinkable in many cases of live exposure. For example, just flipping a few buttons can cause the simulated dog to have a more fierce or gentler demeanor, it can vary the weather conditions and turbulence experienced during an airplane flight, or it can cause the spiders to collapse. bring closer to the patient.

    Live exposure only allows this control in certain types of stimuli. For example, we can bring an object or an animal closer to the treated subject, but in no case can we vary the weather or the attitude of an animal in order to be able to note the intensity of the exposure according to our objectives and professional opinion. of the psychologist, because certain elements would be subject only to the chance of the situation.

    In addition, the professional controls not only what the patient sees, but also how he perceives it, And can you add interoceptive elements, such as tunnel or blurry vision, if you want to intensify the experience and focus on a specific physiological sensation, which scares the subject. Thus, the picture is fully modular, at all levels, achieving exactly the type of stimulus that we are looking for on every occasion.

    Therefore, if we want to have absolute control over the aversive stimulus for exposure as gradual as necessary, it is better to opt for virtual reality therapy applied to phobias to treat this type of disorder, unlike traditional methods. are also malleable. in this sense as we have been able to verify.

      2. Low cost

      Another great advantage of using virtual reality is the low cost of this technique, because with the same equipment, we can prepare a simulated exposure for a myriad of different stimuli. It is enough to prepare the projection that the patient will see through the VR glasses, adapted to the aversive stimulus that brought him to the consultation.

      Therefore, it doesn’t matter whether the person wants to be treated for insect phobia, driving, storms, or blood. Any conceivable option is likely to be discussed in the psychologist’s office through virtual reality therapy applied to phobias. For that, the costs of preparation of the treatment as well as its possibilities of realization are much more affordable than with exposure to real stimuli.

      Think, for example, of the fear of flying. It would be complicated and extremely expensive to attempt to perform each treatment session on a real airplane, taking off and landing from an airport. Instead, just by putting on your virtual reality glasses, the patient can look around and see in board this vehicle that scares him so much, for the moment, until his anguish reactions. begin to disappear.

      3. Results

      The third benefit of virtual reality therapy applied to phobias, which we had anticipated before, is that the results obtained can be extrapolated to the real stimuli. That is, a person who has successfully overcome their fear of dogs, leading by example, using a virtual reality system, should be able to cope with the stimulus in person (real dogs) without experiencing anxiety symptoms.

      Therefore, not only do we control the virtual stimulus, which is also very low cost, but we get results just as strong as we get with live exposure, Using real stimuli. By putting the two techniques in balance, there is no doubt that virtual therapy wins the game in most cases, unless the phobia is about something very abundant, easy to achieve and easy to handle.

        The importance of the therapist

        Although we have already seen that virtual reality therapy applied to phobias is affordable, effective and controllable, we cannot ignore the central element of this therapy, which is none other than the psychologist himself who performs it. And it is that, no matter how powerful the elements used, it is of little use if they are not handled with the skill of an experienced professional.

        It is the psychologist who, thanks to his insight, knows how to modulate virtual exposure, by observing the physiological responses of the individualTo know when, in fact, you have overcome the anxiety to a certain degree of the stimulus and can then move on to the next one, without anticipation, which would cause a very negative rebound effect for the treatment.

        For this reason, however reliable and effective virtual reality therapy applied to phobias may be, it is essential that it be guided by a professional psychologist, as only someone with the proper training can lead these sessions. ensuring a good development of the same and therefore a satisfactory result for the patient, undoing once and for all his deepest fears, without running any risk.

        A practical example

        To better understand the functioning of virtual reality therapy applied to phobias, we will look at a practical example, through the study published by Banys and collaborators in 2001, in the journal Clínica i Salut. In this book, the authors give details of a virtual reality treatment for the phobia of flight. For this they had prepared three different scenarios (all virtual) to gradually increase the intensity.

        In the first scenario, we could see a room in which the subject prepares his suitcases for the trip, so he begins to anticipate his fears and therefore his anxiety symptoms, even before leaving the house., Situation happening in the reality, of course. Passing to the second stage, the patient saw himself at an airport, before boarding, observing the usual activity of these facilities.

        Finally, in the third scenario, we would go inside the plane, and can modify the conditions according to the therapist’s criteria to simulate take-off, landing, turbulent conditions and other weather events that may increase the patient’s anxiety. .

        After eight sessions, two of which were evaluation and six of the treatment with VR glasses, the success of the therapy was verified, observing a sharp reduction in levels of anxiety, avoidance and catastrophic beliefs facing the airplane flight event. This is a small sample of the enormous utility of this system that all phobia psychologists should definitely consider.

        Bibliographical references:

        • Banys, RM, Botella, C., Perpignan, C., Quero, S. (2001). Virtual reality treatment for the phobia of flight: a case study. Official College of Psychologists of Madrid. Clinic and health.
        • Botella, C., García-Palacios, A., baths, RM (2007). Virtual reality and psychological treatments. Liaison psychosomatic medicine and psychiatry notebooks.
        • Capafons, JI (2001). Effective psychological treatments for specific phobias. Psychotheme.
        • García-García, ES, Rosa-Alcázar, AI, Olivares-Olivares, PJ (2011). Exposure therapy using virtual reality and the Internet in anxiety disorders / social phobia: a qualitative review. Psychological therapy.

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