What's the point of Virtual Reality phobia treatment?

How is scaring myself in Virtual Reality going to help me overcome my fears?

We’ve seen the videos on youtube – dangling perilously over ledges, walking planks between skyscrapers, hundreds of spiders swarming over you, a t-rex approaching you in a narrow hallway – those are the last things you need, right? How are these things supposed to help you overcome a phobia? Well, the short answer is, they’re not.

There is a big difference between experiencing something in virtual reality and using virtual reality as a treatment tool.

Let me explain.

Phobias are irrational concerns; they are things that we fear in excess of the danger they actually pose. The purpose behind exposure treatment is to gradually face these feared situations in order to practice appropriate management so that our responses are rational for the situation.

In the presence of real dangers, the symptoms we feel as anxiety aren’t problematic or irrational- in fact, they might be useful! In the presence of such dangerous situations it would actually be abnormal not to be afraid. Therefore, virtual reality that provides experiences that reflect actually dangerous situations are not the ones that are used as treatment tools. Those experiences are more for entertainment (for those who find such things entertaining).

When virtual reality is used in treatment, it is to provide the experiences that should not normally be so anxiety-provoking, such as a visit to the doctor, a park, a lift- to give the opportunity to practice skills and learn about these situations as non-threatening. Before undertaking these experiences, you would ideally have done some work identifying the elements that have lead you to fear the situation as well as management strategies to break these cycles. In the virtual exposure experience then, you are able to practise these management strategies until you feel comfortable enough to leave the virtual space and undertake these situations in real life, using your new strategies.

So what next? If you have a marked fear of something, don’t try to work it out in a virtual entertainment world on your own, as this may just end up confirming your fears! Instead, speak to your doctor or try to meet up with a therapist who can advise you of how to manage your fear. They may be able to recommend some tasks or virtual applications that may be suitable to use to support the treatment.