Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy
Virtual reality is the foundation of exposure therapy. A patients is introduced and then slowly exposed to a traumatic stimulus within virtual environments. Patients safely interact with a representation of their phobia, and researchers don't need to have access to a real version of the phobia itself.
One of the primary challenges to the efficacy of Exposure therapy is recreating the level of trauma existing in real environments inside a virtual environment. Virtual Reality aids in overcoming this by engaging with different sensory stimuli of the patient while heightening the realism and maintaining the safety of the environment. One very successful example of virtual reality therapy exposure therapy is the PTSD treatment system, "Virtual Iraq".
Using specialized VR hardware and a game pad, patients navigate a Humvee around virtual recreations of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the United States. By being safely exposed to the traumatic environments, patients learned to reduce their anxiety. According to a review of the history of Virtual Iraq, one study found that it reduced PTSD symptoms by an average of fifty percent, and disqualified over seventy-five percent of participants for PTSD after treatment. Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy is also commonly used for treating specific phobias, especially small animal phobia. Commonly feared animals such as spiders can be easily produced in a virtual environment, instead of finding the real animal. This has also been used experimentally to treat other fears such as public speaking and claustrophobia.
Another successful study attempted treating 10 individuals who experienced trauma as a result of events during 9/11. Through repeated exposure to increasingly traumatic sequences of World Trade Center events, immediate positive results were self reported by test subjects. In a 6 month follow up, 9 of the test subjects available for follow up maintained their results from exposure. Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy offers a wide range of advantages compared to traditional exposure therapy techniques. Recent years have suggested an increase in familiarly and trust in virtual reality technology as an acceptable mirror of reality. A higher trust in the technology could lead to more effective treatment results as more phobics seek out help. Another consideration is the cost effectiveness. While the actual cost of Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy may vary based on the hardware and software implementation, it is supposedly more effective than the traditional in vivo treatment used for exposure therapy while maintaining a positive return on investment. Future research might pave an alternative to extensive automated lab or hospital environments. For instance, in 2011, researchers at York University proposed an affordable virtual reality exposure therapy system for the treatment of phobias that could be set up at home. Such developments in Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy may pave a new way of customized treatment that also tackles the stigma attached to clinical treatment. While there is still a lot unknown about the long-term effectiveness of the relatively new Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy, the future seems promising with growing studies reflecting the benefits of Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy to combat phobias.