Hello Fear: Virtual Reality vs. Our Fears

By Akudo McGee 6 Min Read

Virtual Reality, a technology that uses computer-generated, life-like environments has become well-known by now. Whether you associate it with video games, virtual entertainment or selfie filters, chances are you’ve experienced one of its many applications in everyday life.

For the everyday person, virtual reality is used for pleasure, some examples of this would be video games which allow users to move around in a virtual environment or theme parks where the user dons a virtual reality headset to experience a roller coaster (not sure why you would want to, but if you do, you have that option!). However, today’s startup isn’t exactly about virtual reality as a tool for entertainment, but rather, about virtual reality as a tool to improve the lives of others.

Fears. We all have them. Whether it’s public speaking, being attacked by birds or being embarrassed in front of others, fears are a normal part of our lives. In fact, if you had long enough, I would share mine with you, but to spare you the annoyance or reading on for hours, I’ll throw a few out there- swimming, biking, public speaking and meeting people.

While these fears are intense at times, they still allow me to live my life, which is the case for others, normally. What is not normal, however, is when the fear begins to consume you. For those who suffer from anxiety and panic attacks, the long-standing solutions have been medication and therapy, however, some have found relief in an unexpected place. Today’s startup, VRET (Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy) is all about using tech to help assuage your fears.

VRET is designed to assist with common fears like fear of heights, spiders, dogs, claustrophobia and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In a recent trial with Phobius Polyclinic in Vienna, they treated patients over 60 years old and saw an 80-90% success rate. They recently competed in an international startup competition in Berlin and placed second. Their success rate has been amazing, so how exactly do they do it?

Virtual reality technology can help clinical specialists to improve their psychotherapies and to give their patients safer, more effective and faster treatment. Use VR Technology to improve therapies for stress, OCD, fears, and phobias

VRET works by recreating the patient’s fear(s) in a controlled, less frightening and lower stimulus environment. It can be controlled by the psychotherapist and other medical staff so the solutions are tailored to the particular patient. Here are a few examples. Say you suffer with, cynophobia or a fear of dogs, this fear is classified as a subtype of a fear of animals and it may make it difficult to go for walks or interact with loved ones who have a pet.

Animal phobias are also among the most common of specific phobias, according to a study of anxiety disorders at the University of Texas. Specific fear or dogs and cats account for 36% of patients seeking treatment. Snakes are a more common animal phobia but less life affecting since most people have a better chance of running into a dog or cat.

How can VRET help? Well, doctors can use VRET, to place patients in an artificial environment (created with virtual reality) that contains "dogs." This can be used to help the patient overcome their fear in a short period of time, without putting them in physical danger.

The method of treatment is similar to other fears. For instance, claustrophobia, or the fear of being in an enclosed, small space without the possibility to escape. This is another phobia that is easily triggered, for instance, while riding in an elevator or riding in a very small car.

Like with cynophobia, patients with claustrophobia can experience being on an elevator or a similar space in a virtual environment. They wouldn’t be in physical danger and the stimulus can be removed by removing the headset.

So what is it about their device that works? This sort of therapy is called virtual reality exposure therapy and it’s been proven to be effective by giving users a simulated experience of "meeting" their fears in a controlled environment, where they can’t actually be harmed. In addition to traditional psychotherapy techniques, VRET can be used to help patients face and overcome their fears, this is of course monitored by the patient’s doctors and treatment team.

Fear is difficult to deal with, it’s our most primal, original and life-preserving emotion. A healthy level of fear is life-saving, however, an extreme level of fear can life ruining, so maybe the answer isn’t dealing with fears face to face, but rather confronting them in the virtual world.


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