Vertigo? Don't worry. Nic, your virtual coach, will take care of it.

Virtual Reality (VR) therapy is a time-saving and personal method of psychiatric treatment with proven effectiveness. The Oxford-based company Oxford VR is currently working on the development of VR therapies for social phobias and psychosis.

Immersive virtual reality is an effective therapy for acrophobia

Virtual Reality (VR) therapy is a time-saving and personal method of psychiatric treatment with proven effectiveness. The Oxford-based company Oxford VR is currently working on the development of VR therapies for social phobias and psychosis.

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Imagine your patient suffering from acrophobia. He or she can't go out on the balcony, use escalators, cross bridges. Because of dizziness, the patient can't cope with many common situations in everyday life. The strategy that he/she will adopt, as most of these patients do, will be that of avoidance. Your patient will adapt daily life to phobia and will only accept restrictions so as not to be forced to live in fear. Despite this, his/her suffering will be considerable.

Acrophobia is a significant clinical problem. One in five people suffers at some point in their lives. In most cases, they never receive treatment. In the past, virtual reality has already been used to treat phobias, together with a therapist who guided the patient through the treatment. Researchers at Oxford VR, a company founded at the University of Oxford, have experimented with a therapeutic program for acrophobia that is based on virtual reality and a virtual trainer generated by a computer. The therapeutic approach is cognitive, focused on assessing threat forecasts and abandoning defensive behaviors.

The video describes the main stages of the therapy. Richard, the patient in the video, is a retired paramedic who suffers from a severe form of acrophobia. The first part of the video shows Richard in a shopping mall trying to walk about three meters from the wall to the glass railing on the first floor, from where you can look into the inner courtyard. Richard breathes heavily, sweats, takes a few steps, then goes back, finally arrives at a concrete column surrounding the railing to which he can cling. It is not possible for him to stand against the railing and look down. Richard then undergoes immersive virtual reality therapy. Richard is led through the program by a virtual coach named Nic and has to face various tasks to overcome his fear of heights.

Unlike traditional methods, in this therapy, the patient experiences situations that cause anxiety but feels more secure because he is aware of the context. This means that he can better deal with fear because he is sure that nothing will happen to him. The video shows that Richard experiences great stress as he crosses a virtual suspension bridge. He breathes heavily and looks deep several times, left and right, before being able to put his hand on the railing of the suspension bridge and continue his way. The last part of the video shows Richard again in the mall after four weeks of therapy. Now he can walk quickly from the wall to the railing, lean on it and look down.

Oxford VR conducted one of the largest randomized controlled trials on acrophobia. It was attended by 100 people, who on average have been suffering from their disease for 30 years. 49 people were subjected to augmented reality (AR) therapy, 51 people were not. All participants in the VR group study showed a significant reduction in fear of heights - on average by 68%. Half of the people in the VR therapy group showed a reduction of more than 75% in fear of height. These results are better than expected from a traditional psychological intervention.

Sources: 
- Freeman D, Haselton P, Freeman J, Spanlang B, Kishore S, Albery E, Denne M, Brown P5, Slater M, Nickless A. Automated psychological therapy using immersive virtual reality for the treatment of fear of heights: a single-blind, parallel-group, randomised controlled trial. Lancet Psychiatry. 2018 Aug;5(8):625-632. doi: 10.1016/S2215-0366(18)30226-8.
- Zakirova E. Virtual Reality Therapie gegen Höhenangst erzielt sensationelle Ergebnisse mit virtuellem Coach. Esanum.de. 23.07.2019

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