Virtual reality (VR) simulations could help an estimated one-in-twelve people worldwide who suffer from various phobias, a University of Otago trial has found.
Participants suffering from the specific fears flying, needles, heights, spiders and dogs, downloaded a fully self-guided smartphone app called ‘oVRcome’, which was paired with a headset to immerse participants in virtual environments to help treat their phobia.
The results from the trial, just published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, showed a 75 per cent reduction in phobia symptoms after six weeks of the treatment programme.
“The improvements they reported suggests there’s great potential for the use of VR and mobile phone apps as a means of self-guided treatment for people struggling with often-crippling phobias,” associate professor Cameron Lacey said.
“Participants demonstrated a strong acceptability of the app, highlighting its potential for delivering easily accessible, cost-effective treatment at scale, of particular use for those unable to access in-person exposure therapy to treat their phobias.”
A total of 129 people took part in the six-week randomised, controlled trial, between May 2021 and December 2021, with a 12-week follow-up. Participants needed to be aged between 18-64 years and have one of the aforementioned fears. They were emailed weekly questionnaires to record their progress.
“The oVRcome app involves what’s called ‘exposure therapy’, a form of CBT exposing participants to their specific phobias in short bursts, to build up their tolerance to the phobia in a clinically-approved and controlled way,” Lacey said.
“Some participants reported significant progress in overcoming their phobias after the trial period, with one feeling confident enough to now book an overseas family holiday, another lining up for a Covid vaccine and another reporting they now felt confident not only knowing there was a spider in the house but that they could possibly remove it themselves.”
The app programme also consisted of standard CBT components including psychoeducation, relaxation, mindfulness, cognitive techniques, exposure through VR, and a relapse prevention model. Participants were able to select their own exposure levels to their particular phobia from a large library of VR videos.
“This means the levels of exposure therapy could be tailored to an individual’s needs which is a particular strength. The more traditional in-person exposure treatment for specific phobias have a notoriously high dropout rate due to discomfort, inconvenience and a lack of motivation in people seeking out fears to expose themselves to. With this VR app treatment, triallists had increased control in exposure to their fears, as well as control over when and where exposure occurs,” Lacey added.
The researchers say this trial was novel, due to the cost-effective availability of the app and headsets and the fact that multiple phobias were tested at once.