Treating anxiety with virtual reality

Treating anxiety with virtual reality


We have all experienced anxiety and fear on occasion, prior to an important exam, a job interview, or a situation that we deemed dangerous. This is a normal response. But when these feelings don't leave us they end up causing discomfort and affecting our behavior. In these cases we refer to the anxiety disorder, a problem that affects about 18% of the world population. How to cure anxiety?

One of the most used treatments for both generalized anxiety and phobias and panic attacks is "Exposure therapy", a cornerstone of the cognitive-behavioral approach, which has amply demonstrated its effectiveness.

In this therapy, the person has to deal with the feared situation, gradually and systematically, so that his limbic system, the emotional part of the brain, stops reacting with fear and reduces anxiety. In fact, the person who has a phobia of spiders, for example, is aware that this little animal cannot hurt, he knows that the situation itself is not dangerous, but in any case his limbic system continues to send alarm signals, which they can be corrected through systematic exposure.

In some cases in vivo exposure can be applied, putting the person in front of real situations, but in other cases it is practically impossible and the psychologist is forced to resort to fantasy. However, we now have a more effective tool at our disposal: the virtual reality.

Why is virtual reality effective in treating anxiety and phobias?

Fear is an emotional response to an imminent threat, real or imagined, while anxiety is a proactive response to a future threat. In any case, activation occurs on an emotional and physiological level and is very difficult to control. Virtual reality takes advantage of this condition to 'confuse' the brain.

In fact, it has been found that the brains of people with a phobia function differently in virtual environments. Neuroscientists have found that those who do not suffer from phobias quickly recognize the small details that indicate objects or situations are not real, such as the way an animal moves or the lack of movement on an airplane.

But people who suffer from a phobia do not perceive these details, because they focus on the fundamental aspects for survival. For example, the mere presence of a spider heading towards them triggers a strong emotional response, especially at the level of the insula and amygdala.

Similarly, if a person suffers from panic attacks when he has to speak in public, simply telling him that he will have to present himself in front of an audience will trigger a series of responses on an emotional and physiological level. When there is a phobic or anxiety disorder, fear is not activated only in front of the stimulus but also only at the thought, because it is connected to the memory of the past.

All of this happens in just 12 or 15 milliseconds. Therefore, even if the situation that the person lives in the virtual environment is not real, the same mechanisms that underlie the phobia are activated, and this is more than enough to start corrective learning. In fact, the scans show that once the treatment is finished, the brain returns to normal functioning and the person is able to notice details they had not seen before due to fear and anxiety.

Furthermore, we cannot forget that virtual reality has a higher acceptance rate. Systematic desensitization, including in vivo exposure, is one of the most effective techniques for treating anxiety disorders, but about 27% of people refuse to undergo it simply because they are too afraid. In contrast, only 3% of people refuse to use virtual reality knowing that they can face their fears in a completely safe and controlled therapeutic environment, where they can decide when to stop.

A virtual reality environment created by psychologists

Virtual reality has been applied in the United States for three decades. Indeed, the underlying technology began to be explored in the 1960s, although it was not applied on a large scale until the 90s.

Of course, several studies have been developed over the years to analyze the effectiveness of this tool in the clinical setting. In this regard, an experiment conducted at the University of Georgia has shown that virtual reality is not only effective in the treatment of the simplest anxiety disorders but also in the most complex cases. After just eight sessions, four of them with virtual reality, the participants in this study were able to significantly reduce anxiety when speaking in public.

Additionally, a meta-analysis that included 13 studies comparing the use of virtual reality with in vivo therapy in nearly 400 patients concluded that not only is this tool more effective, but the results last longer. .

There are currently applications for the treatment of eight different types of phobias (acrophobia, claustrophobia, agoraphobia, social phobia and fear of flying, fear of needles, public speaking, driving and animals).

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