Could VR put an end to phobias?

Virtual reality is already making a big impact in the gaming world, but its potential to treat severe phobias such as the fear of heights has so far been relatively untapped. Aimée McLaughlin investigates the possibilities of VR therapy

Imagine being able to step into a virtual reality simulation of your worst nightmare and, quite literally, face your fears, all from the comfort of your own home. Sound like something out of a sci-fi film? Perhaps, but we are already much closer to this reality than you might think.

Up until now, the treatment of phobias has largely centred around therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy, led by real-life therapists – a practice which is considered to be effective but also costly for cash-strapped and time-poor health organisations like the NHS. Daniel Freeman, a Consultant Clinical Psychologist at the Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust and Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford, has been interested in the possibility of using VR to democratise therapy for the masses since 2001, when his research focused primarily on paranoia.

“I realised you could use VR to present people with exactly the same neutral social situations, and that if they viewed hostility from the computer characters, then that was genuine paranoia, so it was a great way of ­assessing it. But always at the back of my mind was the idea that you could use it to help treat paranoia, that you could help people go back into situations, try them in computer simulations and find out that ­actually nothing bad happens,” says Freeman.

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