Techniques to treat phobias

22.08.2020

In Psychology, there are many techniques to treat phobias, using a very varied methodology to achieve this goal.

But with the arrival of new technologies, newer techniques are emerging that incorporate the most cutting-edge technical advances. This is the case of virtual reality therapy applied to phobias, which we are going to discover in this article .

What is virtual reality therapy in the treatment of phobias?

Phobias are one of the most frequent psychological pathologies, since it is estimated that they may be affecting 8% of the adult population. Therefore, it is not surprising that it is one of the problems where more techniques have emerged in order to control and eliminate its symptoms. The most recent of these would be virtual reality therapy applied to phobias.

This therapy is based on the use of virtual reality equipment, with special glasses that incorporate a screen where an image is projected that adapts to the movement of the person's head , thus achieving an immersive experience with the stimulus. and the environment that is being visualized at that moment. In this way, what is achieved is to make an exposure to the aversive stimulus in a virtual way.

In contrast to other techniques, through virtual reality therapy applied to phobias, the element that triggers the fears is not really used (be it a needle, a dog, an airplane flight or a stage where you can speak in public), but rather An illusion is generated to represent said stimulus, but of such realism that at a psychological level the subject experiences the same reactions as if it were real.

Therefore, when carrying out said treatment through virtual images, we were able to simulate in a totally credible way the situation that generates the phobia, just as if the real stimulus were present before the person, so the results obtained are equally valid and extrapolated to when face such stimuli in person.

Advantages of virtual reality

Live exposure has traditionally been used as the standard technique for treating irrational fears. In contrast, virtual reality therapy applied to phobias offers a series of advantages that we do not find when we talk about traditional exposure . We are going to see each one of them.

1. Control

The first point in favor of virtual reality that we find is the control over the stimulus that the therapist has, unthinkable in many cases of live exposure . For example, just by manipulating a few buttons you can make the simulated dog have a fiercer or more tame attitude, you can vary the weather conditions and the turbulence experienced during an airplane flight, or you can make the spiders approach each time more to the patient.

Live exposure allows this control only on some types of stimuli. For example, we can bring an object or an animal closer to the subject being treated, but in no case can we vary the meteorology or the attitude of an animal to be able to graduate the intensity of the exposure according to our objectives and the professional opinion of the psychologist, as some elements would be subject only to chance of the situation.

Moreover, the professional not only controls what the patient sees, but the way in which he perceives it , and he can add interoceptive elements, such as tunnel or blurred vision, if he wants to intensify the experience and focus it on a specific physiological sensation , which is what the subject fears. With which the image is fully modular, at all levels, achieving exactly the type of stimulus we are looking for on each occasion.

Therefore, if we want to have absolute control over the aversive stimulus for an exposure as progressive as we need, it is best to opt for virtual reality therapy applied to phobias to treat these types of disorders, since traditional methods are not as moldable in that sense, as we have seen.

2. Low cost

Another great advantage that the use of virtual reality gives us is the low cost of this technique, since with the same equipment we can prepare a simulated exposure for an infinity of different stimuli . You just have to prepare the projection that the patient will see through the VR glasses, adapted to the aversive stimulus that has led him to the consultation.

Therefore, it does not matter if the person wants to be treated for a phobia of insects, driving, storms or blood. Any imaginable option is susceptible to being treated in the psychologist's office thanks to virtual reality therapy applied to phobias. Therefore, the costs of preparing the treatment as well as its possibilities of carrying it out are much more affordable than with exposure to real stimuli.

Take, for example, the fear of flying. It would be complicated and tremendously expensive to attempt to perform each treatment session aboard a real plane, taking off and landing from an airport. Instead, just by putting on the virtual reality glasses, the patient can look around and see himself on board that vehicle that terrifies him so much, for the moment, until his anxiety reactions begin to disappear.

3. Results

The third advantage that virtual reality therapy applied to phobias gives us, which we anticipated before, is that the results achieved can be extrapolated to real stimuli . In other words, a person who has managed to overcome their fear of dogs, for example, using a virtual reality system, should be able to face the stimulus (real dogs) in person without experiencing anxious symptoms.

Therefore, we not only have control over the virtual stimulus, which is also very low cost, but we also achieve results that are just as robust as those obtained with live exposure , using real stimuli. Putting both techniques on a balance, there is no doubt that virtual therapy wins the game in most cases, unless the phobia is about a very abundant element, easy to obtain and manipulate.

The importance of the therapist

Although we have already seen that virtual reality therapy applied to phobias is affordable, effective and controllable, we cannot ignore the central element of said therapy, which is none other than the psychologist who carries it out . And, no matter how powerful the elements used are, they are of little use if they are not handled with the skill of an experienced professional.

It is the psychologist who, thanks to his insight, knows how to modulate the virtual exposure, observing the physiological responses of the individual , to know when, indeed, anxiety has overcome a certain degree of the stimulus and can then move on to the next, without anticipated, which would cause a very negative rebound effect for the treatment.

For this reason, however reliable and effective virtual reality therapy applied to phobias may be, it is essential that it be guided by a psychology professional, as only someone with the proper training can conduct these sessions ensuring adequate development of the same and therefore a satisfactory result for the patient, getting rid of his deepest fears once and for all, without taking any risk.

A practical example

To better understand the operation of virtual reality therapy applied to phobias, we are going to delve into a practical example, through the study published by Baños et al. In 2001, in the journal Clínica y Salud. In this work, the authors give the details of a virtual reality treatment for the phobia of flying by plane. To do this, they had prepared three different scenarios (all virtual) to progressively increase the intensity .

In the first scenario, a room could be seen in which the subject is preparing the suitcases for the trip, so that he begins to anticipate his fears and therefore his anxiety symptoms, even before leaving home, a situation that occurs in reality, of course. Moving on to the second scenario, the patient would see himself at an airport, before boarding, observing the usual activity of these facilities.

Finally, in the third scenario, we would go inside the plane, being able to modify the conditions according to the therapist's criteria to simulate takeoff, landing, turbulent conditions and other meteorological events that may increase the patient's anxiety.

After performing eight sessions, two of them for evaluation and six for treatment with VR glasses, the success of the therapy was verified, observing a high reduction in the levels of anxiety, avoidance and catastrophic beliefs in the event of flying by plane. This is a small sample of the tremendous utility of this system that, without a doubt, all psychologists specialized in phobias should take into account.

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