Virtual reality-in-app used to treat common phobias and anxiety

July 18, 2022
Virtual reality-in-app used to treat common phobias and anxiety

Recently, a number of New Zealanders refused COVID-19 vaccination due to needle phobia – more and more people worldwide have been found to have a phobia of some sort, which includes anything from a fear of flying, needles, heights, insects, and even animals. Researchers from the University of Otago, Christchurch, have now introduced a novel treatment for the condition using a combination of Virtual Reality (VR) and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – these are thankfully condensed into a smartphone app which users can easily navigate themselves.

Developed by Christchurch tech entrepreneur Adam Hutchinson, the “oVRcome” app involves a form of CBT which exposes users to their specific phobias in short bursts, to build up their tolerance to the phobia in a safe, clinically-approved, and controlled way. The app is paired with a VR headset to immerse users in virtual environments to help with the treatment.

While this method may seem counterintuitive, a trial led by led by Associate Professor Cameron Lacey, from the Department of Psychological Medicine, the University of Otago, proves otherwise: trial participants reported a surprising 75% reduction in phobia symptoms in just six weeks after the oVRcome treatment.

A total of 129 participants with specific phobias took part in the 2021 trial, with a 12-week follow-up. The participants needed to download and use the oVRcome app and were also emailed weekly questionnaires to record their progress.

[Participants experiencing adverse effects could request assistance from a clinical psychologist at any moment during the trial.]

The app programme consisted of standard CBT components including psychoeducation, relaxation, mindfulness, cognitive techniques, exposure through VR, and a relapse prevention model.

“Participants experiencing [five types of phobias] showed comparable improvements in the Severity Measures for Specific Phobia scale over the course of the trial. The average severity score decreased from 28/40 (moderate to severe symptoms) to 7/40 (minimal symptoms) after six weeks. There were no participant withdrawals due to intervention-related adverse events,” said Professor Lacey.

“Some participants reported significant progress in overcoming their phobias after the trial period, with one feeling confident enough to now book an overseas family holiday, another lining up for a Covid vaccine, and another reporting they now felt confident not only knowing there was a spider in the house but that they could possibly remove it themselves,” he proudly added.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the treatment is that it is customisable, meaning that participants were able to select their own exposure levels to their particular phobia from a large library of VR videos. This customisability led to unprecedented public demand to take part in the trial.

“More traditional in-person exposure treatment for specific phobias have a notoriously high dropout rate due to discomfort, inconvenience, and a lack of motivation in people seeking out fears to expose themselves to. With this VR app treatment, triallists had increased control in exposure to their fears, as well as control over when and where exposure occurs,” Professor Lacey said.

Category: Features, Technology & Devices

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