Do your palms sweat and your heart race when you’re several floors off the ground? You’re not alone. Fear of heights, or acrophobia, ranks among the top 10 phobias reported worldwide. Causing that familiar fight-or-flight response, sufferers often freeze motionless while others avoid heights at all costs.
Avoidance is one solution but severely restricts daily life; getting over the panic means learning to love heights. It’s not a simple or easily accessible process, but a new virtual reality (VR) approach to therapy could help.
Looking Down in a Virtual World
Acrophobia has various causes. Psychology Today lists balance disturbances from inner ear problems and faulty processing of visual clues, among other factors. Treatment usually involves desensitization through exposure so that sufferers learn to feel safe and control their reactions.
The new VR solution combines automation with current technology for a virtual therapy session that can take place wherever the patient wants. As reported by The Lancet, researchers created an app that works with a VR headset, immersing users in a series of height-challenging scenarios. An avatar therapist guides participants through a virtual high-rise building to complete tasks on each floor that challenges their fear of heights.
According to Science News for Students, the study found that fear levels decreased after the automated cognitive intervention sessions, with benefits of virtual reality extending into everyday life. According to one participant, “‘When I’ve always got anxious about an edge, I could feel the adrenaline in my legs, that fight/flight thing … that’s not happening as much now.'”
In addition to fear of heights, studies show that VR could help modify behavior and response in other phobias and mental health issues. VR is novel and feels safer since it simulates the real world rather than forces face-to-face encounters. Virtual spiders are easier to manage than real ones.
Combining VR exposure with cognitive behavior training helps people deal with everyday life. According to Psychology Today, this includes those with persecutory or paranoid delusions. By placing them into virtual worlds that create uncomfortable situations, therapists can safely rehearse coping strategies with patients until they feel more at ease.
Facing PTSD in Safety
Studies show that VR could also be valuable for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The benefits of virtual reality help soldiers returning from battle. Recreating battlefield scenarios in a controlled and safe immersive experience allows soldiers to face past events, helping them recover and return home. Researchers also think that VR during training could prevent PTSD. The same immersive battlefield scenarios prepare soldiers ahead of deployment for what they might encounter during military operations.
Virtual Reality To Regain Missing Function
Clinicians also find that virtual worlds help restore lost function. Phantom limb pain is common following amputation, where amputees experience sensation in the missing limb. It is painful, debilitating and difficult to treat because no one knows quite why it happens. Mirror therapy, which tricks the brain into “seeing” the missing limb, helps reduce pain by replacing the missing limb visually. Frontiers in Neurology described a study where immersive VR gave patients control over the amputated limb. Being able to move the limb and watch it in virtual reality reduced pain scores in the two patients tested.
Immersive VR also shows success in spinal injury rehabilitation. Another study from Frontiers in Neurology reports improved balance, mobility and lower limb muscle strength. Patients could also use the system at home without having to wait for clinic appointments.
VR has already shown many benefits, including relaxation and exercise, extending our reach safely for deep space exploration and remote machine operation. Now it’s helping people face their fears safely and virtually.
Northrop Grumman has been a pioneer in virtual reality, although our focus has been less on conquering fear and more on preparedness. Click here to find out about our careers for software engineers focusing on VR and other simulations.