Virtual reality could offer psychotherapy for fear of heights, study shows

This was the first VR phobia treatment not to require the presence of a real-life therapist, the team said. They were constantly encouraged by the coach throughout the activity. At the end of the session the coach discussed the participant's learning from the specific activity and asked if they felt safer after it.

For ethical fairness, after the research period, the participants who were in the control group could have the VR treatment if sought.

Fear of heights, the most common phobia, affects one in five people at some point in their lives, but most never receive treatment, researchers say.

All participants completed questionnaires on the severity of their fear of heights at the start of the trial, at the end of treatment (two weeks later), and at follow-up after four weeks.

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Of the 49 participants offered the virtual reality treatment, 47 took part in at least one session, and 44 completed the full course of treatment.

People who have lived with a fear of heights for decades became less afraid after virtual reality (VR) therapy had them riding a flying whale, researchers said this week.

Using voice recognition technology, Nic can interact with patients and gauge their fear levels by asking how they feel on a scale of 1 to 10.

One possible limitation, however, he said, was that the cohort was quite different from individuals with severe mental illness typically seen in secondary-care mental health services within the U.K.'s National Health System - for example, most of the participants in the study were employed, and because of this, the technology might actually be more hard to implement in practice compared with what was seen in the trial. "Our study is an important first step, and we are carrying out clinical testing to learn whether automation of psychological treatment using virtual reality works for other mental health disorders". Also, the participants were self-referred which may have introduced some degree of selection bias. However, more research is needed to understand how automated therapy would apply in other conditions, including more severe mental health disorders such as psychosis, where therapy is now delivered by experienced mental health professionals. "This is often impractical in face-to-face therapy, but easily done in VR". It is already known that treatments focused on specific symptoms such as auditory hallucinations produce promising results with potentially greater effect sizes, but are presently available only in personal therapy by experts. "Our view is that automated immersive VR has the potential to increase access to the best psychological interventions radically".

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