Does using VR technology to treat phobia in unfamiliar environments sound like a myth?
However, scientific research indicates that VR therapy can indeed help patients with phobia in unfamiliar environments build confidence, alleviate their fears, and encourage them to summon the courage to face scenes they previously dared not face in real life. In addition, research has found that the more severe the patient’s condition, the more effective this treatment is.
“VR technology can really change people’s lives,” said Daniel Freeman, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Oxford University and the lead researcher on the study
This virtual reality experience began in the office of a virtual therapist and gradually evolved into other difficult scenes, such as opening the front door or going out for a walk. Participants were asked to complete specific tasks, such as asking someone for a cup of coffee, and were encouraged to approach or make eye contact with others.
Professor Daniel Freeman said that because these computer-generated scenarios feel very real, they can effectively help and encourage patients to try new things or handle things in different ways. He said, “It’s a bit like the brain consciously pumping itself up: Okay, that’s okay, I know it’s not true, so I can stick to it for a while, try new things, and do different things.”
He went on to say, “And this virtual experience can make people benefit from reality. Basically, if you overcome a challenge in virtual reality, you can overcome the same challenge in the real world.”
One participant revealed that before participating in the experiment, he even found it difficult to take a bus to the cemetery to worship his father. “It’s heartbreaking! However, after using this virtual reality system, I gained confidence,” he said
“He said, ‘It has helped me in every way. Now I can take the bus to the cemetery to visit my father, and I can put a bunch of flowers in front of his grave, stay there quietly for a while, and then take the bus home.'”
Professor Daniel Freeman and his colleagues published a paper in the journal Lancet Psychiatry, reporting on how they randomly assigned 174 patients with travel difficulties and mental disorders to use the “gameChange” VR system in addition to regular treatment. Another group of 172 patients received only routine treatment.
Over a six-week period, participants in the VR group used this technique approximately six times for 30 minutes each time, although not everyone completed all of the training.
When each VR group participant uses VR headsets at home or at NHS clinics, a mental health worker accompanies them to help them learn together and arrange tasks for them.
After six weeks, the results showed that those assigned to the VR therapy group showed significant improvement compared to those who only received conventional treatment, and their avoidance of real life due to fear of unfamiliar environments eased. However, after six months, the difference between the two groups disappeared. Is it because the effect of VR therapy cannot be sustained?
However, further analysis showed that the people who benefited most from this experiment were those with severe environmental phobia. For these people, this positive impact lasted for six months. On average, these patients can complete two more activities than before – such as shopping or taking public transportation.
Professor Daniel Freeman said that the current price of VR headsets on the market is only around 300 pounds, and most patients can afford it.
For a patient who simply wishes to visit his father in the cemetery, the benefits of VR therapy go far beyond completing the task. He said, “I can now go out and interact with more people, which is beyond my own imagination. Now I have more confidence in myself and behave more confidently when dealing with others.”