Don’t look down! Virtual Reality to the rescue when tackling fear of heights

13 July 2018
Posted by Isabelle Cochrane.

A group of scientists are using virtual reality technology to treat fear of heights…

A fear of heights affects around one in five people, but few ever seek treatment for it. Nevertheless, it can have a significant impact on people’s everyday lives. In the past, treatment for this phobia required a trained therapist, making it hard to access. But now, with the help of virtual reality technology, or VR, a team at the University of Oxford, led by Prof. Daniel Freeman, are tapping into a resource that could one day see people receiving high-quality treatment from the comfort of their own homes.

"In many ways, the treatment that we are providing in VR is very similar to the treatment you would get if you were seeing a highly skilled therapist, because what we’ve done is to automate this treatment in VR", says Freeman. "But we also do some stuff that you can’t do with a real therapist - we do things by virtual heights that push the fears a bit more than you might in the real world. And when you can conquer these fears in VR, then it makes everyday situations around heights a lot easier".

Despite the treatment being automated, it's design allows a degree of personalisation: "You choose what level of difficulty to start off with - this can be anywhere on the floors one to five. The first tasks are much easier, for example they start off with just a barrier by the height that comes down gently, and then the tasks get more difficult as you go higher up: We get people to throw balls off the virtual height, the have to cross a rickety walkway... And at the end, when you’ve done all the therapeutic tasks, you get the chance to ride a virtual whale around the atrium."

Sounds fun, but does it work? "The average reduction in fear of heights was ⅔, which is extraordinarily good", says Freeman. Fear may sound like something that is too subjective to put a number on. The researchers got around this by using three separate questionnaires, each of which had been validated against people’s reaction when faced with heights. In other words, a numerical value derived from the questionnaire corresponds reliably to a given degree of fear at a particular height. This helps to increase objectivity in measuring the study participants’ reactions before and after therapy.

So where is this technology going next? "This can be used for other phobias, but our ambitions are much greater", says Freeman. "We think this could be applied to most mental health conditions. Patients with mental health problems are often mistrustful, may hear voices, may feel depressed or socially anxious. The end result is that when they go into the real world, they get very frightened. And that means that they tend to withdraw from life and stay indoors. So again what we’re dealing with here is taking people back out into everyday situations, and letting them learn that they’re safe, and that they can cope."

Currently, the team are looking to make the treatment available via the NHS' (the UK National Health Service) psychological therapy services. But in future, this could change. Freeman shares his vision: "As VR kit becomes more widely available at home, and it becomes more affordable, you can envisage in the future also accessing these sorts of treatments in the comfort of their own home, whenever they want."


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