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Virtual Reality Photo: Flickr/ Salford Institute for Dementia
Virtual Reality Photo: Flickr/ Salford Institute for Dementia

How virtual reality can help confront your fears

Virtual reality is getting bigger by the day and its benefits are now felt across sectors. We always associate virtual reality with games and entertainment, in the way how it can recreate real-life situations and give a completely immersive experience, but the technology has moved forward in great speed and is now finding its usage in medical facilities. And virtual reality is revolutionizing the way we treat anxiety, fear and address clinical health conditions.

What is virtual reality?

Virtual reality is a type of human-computer interaction in which humans interact in a manner that they would normally do in real life. The immersive experience provided by the computer goes much beyond our usual mouse-keyboard interaction.

A study titled, “Virtual Reality Applications for the Assessment and Treatment of PTSD”, by few U.S. universities and health organizations, including the Institute for Creative Technologies, University of Southern California, says:

Immersive VR can be produced by combining computers, head mounted displays (HMDs), body tracking sensors, specialized interface devices and real-time graphics to immerse a participant in a computer generated simulated world that changes in a natural or intuitive way with head and body motion. The use of an HMD and head tracking system affords the delivery of real-time 3D graphic imagery and sounds of a simulated virtual scene rendered in relation to user movements that corresponds to what the individual would see and hear if the scene were real. Thus, an engaged virtual experience creates the illusion of being immersed ‘‘in’’ a virtual space within which the user can interact.

How virtual reality is used in providing therapies

How do we confront our fears and anxieties? We either run or fight it. And virtual reality provides a superb middle ground, in terms of not running away from it but at the same time confronting it in a manner that puts us at ease.

Here’s an example: Let’s say you have Arachnophobia, or fear of arachnids such as spiders and scorpions. So the therapist will put you in an environment that forces you to confront one, a virtual one. Depending on your degree of fear, the therapist might look at setting the environment in manner that you feel comfortable confronting it.  

Jim Morrison on fear

So instead of putting you in a room full of spiders, he/she might leave you outdoors with a playful or a more ‘fun-looking’ spider to help you overcome your fear and the can go on to make it look more ‘sinister’ as you feel more comfortable approaching it. The reports says,

As escape and avoidance from feared situations are intrinsically rewarding (albeit, temporarily), phobic disorders and PTSD can perpetuate without treatment. Successful treatment requires emotional processing of the fear structures in order to modify their pathological elements so that the stimuli no longer invoke fear, and any method capable of activating the fear structure and modifying it in a safe environment would be predicted to improve symptoms of anxiety. The proposed mechanisms for symptom reduction involve activation and emotional processing, extinction/habituation of the anxiety, cognitive reprocessing of pathogenic meanings, the learning of new responses to previously feared stimuli, and ultimately an integration of corrective non-pathological information into the fear structure (Foa et al., 1996).

Psychology behind using virtual reality for therapies

Extinction and habituation

Extinction is the disappearance of a learned behavior. A learned behavior can be unlearnt by providing negative reinforcements. Imagine a person addicted to smoking. The habit can be unlearnt by providing negative reinforcements like explaining the ill-effects of smoking by showing pictures of people who have experienced such effects. The negative reinforcement is a feedback to an action, that reduces the chances of the action happening again. We can extrapolate the same concept to virtual reality. We give positive reinforcements in a carefully-controlled environment to learn new behavior or reframe our attitudes.

Cognitive reprocessing therapy

Cognitive reprocessing therapy is aimed at identify the ‘blockages’ that doesn’t allow a person be himself. The therapy is generally provided to to counter the ill-effects of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The sufferer’s belief system gets so heavily impaired that his/her understanding of cause and consequence might hamper day-to-day activities. The therapy is aimed at reconceptualizing the trauma in a way that its effects are lessened and do not influence the routine activities.

Virtual reality has proved to be an excellent tool to provide therapies. It can be customized to fit the concerns of any sufferer, used to ease someone slowly out of their comfort zone and, in the process, increase their comfort zone from where they can confront fear and anxiety in a much-better fashion.

In the next part, we’ll discuss the evolution of virtual reality and take up specific cases to understand how the therapy can be tailor-made to the concerns of the individual.

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