Acrophobia, most commonly known as fear of heights, has now been overcome in some patients with the help of a virtual therapist. With this new research, individuals will no longer need to overcome their fear with a professional at their side or be forced to venture onto mountainsides.
The study was led by Professor Daniel Freeman, PhD, DClinPsy, from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford. Dr Freeman and his study team enlisted 100 volunteers, all of whom had been clinically diagnosed with acrophobia (defined as >29 on the Heights Interpretation Questionnaire) but who had never received treatment for the disorder. Of the 100 volunteers, 49 had the opportunity to complete the 2-week virtual reality (VR) treatment, and the other 51 volunteers served as the control group.
Over the course of the VR treatment program, volunteers used a VR headset to meet with a virtual coach for 6 sessions, each roughly 30 minutes long. Scenarios from walking across a virtual rope bridge to rescuing a cat from a tree were offered and Freeman expressed these situations as critical “to find out how safe they were and to put their expectations to the test” when discovering what happens when participants venture into a situation they would normally try to avoid.
The virtual coach encouraged patients to challenge themselves with “real-world” heights between sessions. At the end of VR treatment, 34 of the 49 volunteers in the treatment group expressed that they were no longer afraid of heights. All 51 volunteers in the control group rated their fear at the same level at the end of the study as at the beginning of the study.
This is the first trial to show that VR treatment can produce desired results without the need for a human therapist, which can be costly for marginalized and low-income groups. Freeman noted that VR treatment not only opens the doors for mental health technology but also might be helpful for “people with more severe and enduring mental health problems.”
Freeman D, Haselton P, Freeman J, et al. Automated psychological therapy using immersive virtual reality for treatment of fear of heights: a single-blind, parallel-group, randomised controlled trial [published online July 11, 2018]. Lancet Psychiatry. doi:10.1016/S2215-0366(18)30226-8