After all, even findings from scientific research support the idea that confronting an object or situation which causes fear is the most effective way of gaining control over one’s phobia or anxiety.
From the evolutionary point of view, fear is one of the oldest and strongest emotions. We experience fear at the level of thoughts, but it can trigger a strong bodily reaction as well. When facing danger, a special brain area known as amygdala is activated. To provoke a response to the stimulus that caused fear, amygdala sends signals to the nervous system. As a result, our body immediately releases stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, increases blood pressure and speeds up heart rate. Our breathing intensifies and the blood flow changes. The blood rushes into our limbs, which in turn allow fast movement. In an instant our body is prepared for a primaeval automatic reaction – fight or flight. If the fear becomes too strong or if there is no way for us to escape, we can get stuck in an unpleasant paralysis, also known as freeze.
Fear is a natural reaction to certain events, objects, or situations we get in contact with over the course of our life. If, however, the fear begins to interfere with the ability to function normally and it starts causing a long-term decline in the quality of our life, it can turn into phobia or an anxiety disorder. A simple definition of phobia could be that it presents an "excessive fear of harmless objects or situations that lasts long enough to significantly interfere with one’s quality of life". After watching a horror movie, it is quite normal to experience a slight restlessness of even fear in a gloomy cellar. Such reaction is completely appropriate. However, if a mere thought of staying in a cellar or any dark room causes us a great deal of stress for several months, this clearly represents a phobic reaction.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a talking therapy that can help you manage your problems by changing the way how you think and behave. It is considered “gold standard” among psychological treatments for a broad spectrum of mental health disorders, particularly for its comprehensive scientific evidence base and superiority over alternative therapies. In the treatment of anxiety disorders and phobias, it is the most effective psychological treatment.
Virtual reality uses computer-generated environments providing input to the user’s sensory system. Visual virtual stimuli are usually presented via virtual reality (VR) glasses, also known as head-mounted display (HMD). In addition, auditory input is applied via loudspeakers or earphones. It is also possible to provide a tactile or olfactory stimulation, however, this is seldom the case in clinical trials. The overall aim of VR is to replace sensory input from the real world and to create a sense of presence of the user in the virtual world. To interact with the user in real time, the VR system collects information about the users’ position and movements via sensors and input devices like a head tracking system or a joystick.
Unlike traditional cognitive-behavioral therapy, where confronting feared stimuli in real life is a fundamental part of the treatment, virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) uses the innovative technology of virtual reality, which enables confrontation to feared stimuli in a variety of virtual environments. In addition to changing unproductive thinking about feared situation and reducing avoidant behavior, VRET includes gradual exposure to stimuli that cause anxiety and disrupt normal functioning of affected individuals in their everyday life. VRET presents a modern psychological treatment, with a high treatment effectivity that has been continuously confirmed since the 90s. It represents a practical stage between a conversation about a dreaded situation and a confrontation in real life. One of the greatest advantages of VRET is that clients can face dreaded objects or situations in a secure, controlled, and predictable environment. The severity of a situation can be individually adjusted according to the client’s treatment progress and the confrontation with the feared situation can be repeated until the fear drops to the required level. In this way, users gradually gain control of their fears and learn that they can live a more relaxed life.
The method of VRET offers various advantages to traditional exposure delivery, such as that during exposure clients can interact with virtual stimuli in a safe and controlled environment, which makes it easier to get used to the feared stimuli. As such, VRET present a platform where effective relaxation training can be easily incorporated. In virtual reality, the whole exposure process can be repeated as many times as necessary, which clearly is a major advantage over conventional exposure interventions. Examples from real-life practice show us that when trying to confront feared stimuli in vivo, it is usually difficult to repeat the exposure as much as needed within a short period of time. For instance, individuals affected by excessive fear of flying usually experience difficulties practicing multiple exposures in real life, as air travel still is a costly and logistically demanding mode of transportation. In virtual reality, you can practice the exposure as many times as needed. In addition, findings from scientific research show a significant fear reduction after only about 8 sessions, which makes virtual reality exposure therapy the most cost-efficient treatment intervention for phobias. Scientific studies confirm that virtual reality exposure therapy is a highly preferred therapeutic intervention among young people, as well as individuals suffering from specific phobias such as fear of driving, public speaking, medical examination and blood sampling, or claustrophobia.
Virtual reality has been meticulously studied for many years and we know how it works. Although older generations tend to perceive virtual reality as something unknown and potentially dangerous, the experience in virtual reality is in fact safe. If you are still having difficulty with its concept, try to imagine virtual reality as a tiny cinema hall, with you sitting in the front row and a movie running in front of your eyes. If you've ever visited a movie theater and have worn 3D glasses, you've already had something like a virtual reality experience. Staying in virtual reality for too long can cause a slight dizziness and possible nausea in some people, however, it passes after a few minutes.