How can doctors use virtual reality to treat phobias?

Virtual Medicine Treatments

Virtually Better may create an environment such as this to help patients overcome their fear of heights.
Virtually Better may create an environment such as this to help patients overcome their fear of heights.
Photo courtesy of Virtually Better, Inc.

Very early in the simulation, Dr. Rothbaum observed that the volunteer patients were exhibiting classic signs of anxiety, including an accelerated heart rate and shortness of breath. Rothbaum and Hodges had successfully demonstrated that a virtual environment could evoke real physical reactions from users. Dr. Rothbaum began to use the simulations to work with patients as if they were undergoing regular exposure therapy. Before long, several of the volunteers reported they had purposefully sought out experiences in real situations that tested their fear. These were patients who  normally would have avoided these situations at all costs before trying the virtual therapy.

After some additional research, Hodges created the company Virtually Better, Inc. The company designs and sells virtual reality systems that accurately recreate several different classic phobia situations, including social phobias involving crowds of people. Now a therapist can take a patient on a virtual flight without the hassle of scheduling travel, go on a virtual elevator ride without ever stepping out of the office, or give a speech in front of a crowd of people, all without leaving the office or compromising patient confidentiality.

The company also offers scenarios to treat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. A program designed for Vietnam veterans can recreate a couple of different situations that were common for most soldiers in the conflict. One simulates a helicopter ride over jungle landscape, while the other puts the patient in the middle of a virtual clearing. Engineers created both scenarios based on veterans' descriptions of situations that triggered their anxiety.

In addition to treating fears and anxieties, Virtually Better uses VR technology to help treat addiction. These scenarios put the user in a situation where characters within the virtual environment are indulging in alcohol or drugs. While it might seem strange to think a virtual character can trigger addiction cravings, Dr. Hodges says their research shows that once someone is habituated to a virtual environment (meaning the user feels as if he's inside and a part of the virtual world) he reacts as if it were the real world. In fact, according to some research projects, virtual characters can impact a real person as if they were acutally real. Dr. Hodges says that the gender of a character seems to make a bigger difference in users' reactions rather than whether the character they see is virtual or real.

Virtually Better has sold units to therapists around the world and continues to develop new therapy applications of VR technology. Dr. Hodges is also continuing his research in the VR field, studying how virtual persons and environments can impact human users.

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  • Hodges, Larry F., PhD. Personal Interview conducted on June 20, 2007.