Published: Sat, July 14, 2018
Medical | By Johnnie Horton

Scared of heights? Virtual reality therapy can help, says study

Scared of heights? Virtual reality therapy can help, says study

It thus offers a proof of concept of the success of automated VR therapy for some mental conditions, which could dramatically increase access to psychological treatment.

If you are acrophobic or are scared of heights, then taking automated virtual reality (VR) based psychological therapy may help reduce the phobia, say researchers. In testing the new method involved 100 adult citizens of the United Kingdom, whose average age is approximately 30 years.

Acrophobia, or fear of heights, is the most commonly reported phobia, affecting one in five people during their lifetime, with one in 20 people clinically diagnosed.

All participants completed questionnaires on the severity of their fear of heights at the start of the trial, at the end of treatment (two weeks later), and at follow-up after four weeks.

The pre-recorded, 30-minute programme sessions ran automatically, with the virtual coach describing what participants needed to do.

First of all, the participants talked about their fears with the VR coach, including the specific cause for their fear, whether of falling, of building collapse, or of throwing themselves off the building.

The program used, "Now I Can Do Heights", does not require the intervention of a therapist.

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Tasks included having to cross a rickety bridge, rescue a cat from a tree, perform tasks near the edge of a balcony - and ride a flying whale. They were constantly encouraged by the coach throughout the activity.

There were no adverse events reported by any participants. 49 people took VR therapy for half an hour two or three times a week, the course lasted for two weeks.

"It is just the most common type of phobia, and one we know a lot of people do not get treatment for despite it impinging on many people's lives quite a lot", said Daniel Freeman, co-founder of Oxford VR.

"With our unique automation of therapy using VR, there is the opportunity to provide really high quality treatment to many more people at an affordable cost", Freeman added. 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.

Published in British medical journal, The Lancet Psychiatry, the research suggests that VR technology has much feasibility to be used as a method of delivering psychological therapies.

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.

They point out the need for further research to pinpoint the portion of the treatment that is responsible for the clinical effect.

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