Facing your fears with VR

9th May 2016
Joe Bush

The recent Wired Health event held in London in April showcased the latest technology and solutions that are helping to shape the future of the healthcare and medical industries. A key part of the event was the Bupa Startup Stage which provided a platform for entrepreneurs and innovators at the cutting edge of medicine and health.

One such start-up was Barcelona-based company Psious which has developed a system to help people overcome phobias and anxieties using virtual reality (VR). Over the years the most common solution to curing various phobias was to throw the sufferer in at the deep end by getting them to experience first-hand exactly what it is that caused the anxiety in the first place. Telling someone who, for example, is afraid of heights, to go to the top of the diving board, might seem a fairly severe approach to solving a medical problem – although methods such as hypnotherapy have also been used.

However, as an alternative Psious’ virtual reality tool is already being used by hundreds of mental care clinicians, research groups and healthcare institutions and has been employed by over 1,000 patients in the US and Spain to treat anxiety disorders. Designed by psychologists for psychologists, Psious brings state of the art VR into real clinical practice through a smartphone and 3D goggles. The aim is to allow patients to experience certain situations through VR rather than having to experience it first-hand – which helps to cure the anxiety without creating any unnecessary stress for the sufferer which would be present with more traditional exposure therapy. The technology can also be used to relax and distract cancer patients during chemotherapy.

Psious claim that VR is the easiest and simplest way to offer best practices to anxiety patients, improving the flow and outcomes of exposure therapy. The VR Kit and 3D goggles allow patients to experience total immersion through a standard smartphone and the Psious platform can be used to increase or decrease exposure to a certain environment whenever necessary. The kit also includes biofeedback monitors to provide better awareness of changes to the patient’s anxiety levels.

An additional advantage of the Psious system is that it puts the patient in control and allows them to be the protagonist of their therapy, which helps to reduce psychological barriers to treatment, which in-turn increases their trust levels.

Through each of the virtual environments the therapist is able to expose the patient to the feared situations and objects. These events will activate the emotional and cognitive state of being of the patient, making it easier for the therapist to work with the exposure technique. Among the anxieties and phobias that can be treated with VR include fear of flying (aviophobia), needles (trypanophobia), heights (acrophobia), open spaces (agoraphobia), confined spaces (claustrophobia) and public speaking (glossophobia) - video below.

In much the same way, VR can also be used by sufferers of post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. This is a condition which develops when a person has been placed under extreme stress or suffered a high level of trauma. A good example of this is a soldier who has experienced front line duty but other examples include an accident, physical assault, terrorism or the after effects of a major disaster.

In the example of a member of the armed forces, part of the treatment is getting them to relive their traumatic experience in order to help them process the negative feelings associated with it. With VR the individual is able to revisit painful memories but with a view to developing new forms of behaviour that will challenge these and any other existing beliefs.

Dr Michael Valdovinos, Chief of Outpatient Behavioural Health at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, commented: “Visual memory is powerful, and if I can use that to help patients create their own movie scene, then they can move into it to rewrite their own script.” Valdovinos also said that repetition of virtually recreating an anxiety proving event helps decrease the anxiety symptoms and fear surrounding the event while helping service members to learn to process the negative thoughts surrounding the trauma.

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