Virtual Reality to Overcome Phobias

BUENOS AIRES — A head set that can help you conquer your deepest fears.

Psychiatrists from the organisation Poder Volar (“Being able to fly” in English) in Buenos Aires help people overcome their fears by recreating 3D scenarios tailored to their phobia.

Here, 53-year old accountant, Gerardo Gari has just started flying again after 15 years grounded in Argentina.

With his futuristic goggles, he rides out the turbulence during take-off on a rainy night.

Scientific evidence increasingly supports the use of virtual reality technology in the field of mental health.

For several years, virtual reality headsets have been used by psychiatrists around the world to treat phobias.

A 2012 study by the Depression and Anxiety Journal in the United States found that virtual-reality therapy had a powerful impact on sufferers of anxiety disorders.

Gerardo says he is now cured, but it took him a lot of nerve to make the first step.

“For me, everything was stressful. Before flying was stressful. It was stressful to go to the airport. The take-off was stressful. The most stressful moments were the take-off and landing. If there was turbulence, I would suffer a lot. If I heard normal sounds, I would suffer a lot too. I would spend my time looking at the faces of stewards and passengers to see how things were. Now this has disappeared,” he says.

The technology is easy to use.

The psychiatrist synchronises the virtual reality headset from the Spanish start-up Psious with a smartphone and desktop computer.

With a click, he paces the intensity of the immersive experience to assess the patient’s anxiety level.

The psychiatrist selects scenarios based on the phobic’s crippling fear.

A journey into this computer-simulated reality lasts for 45 minutes to one hour.

This technology helps treat situational phobias mainly, such as acrophobia (fear of heights) and arachnophobia (fear of spiders_.

“It is very difficult and costly to leave the office and expose the patient to reality. Virtual reality is wonderful for us, therapists, because it enables us to recreate the feared scenario in an office. We have new tools like virtual spiders, virtual elevators and virtual crowds for people who are afraid of speaking in public. Social phobia is very widespread. We can create training with the virtual reality headset. It is very complete because the person feels safe and protected and starts being desensitised,” says psychiatrist Dr Claudio Pla, the founder of the Poder Volar association.

Knowing how to handle unpredictable events, like being trapped in an elevator, is key to overcoming a phobia, says Gustavo Bustamante, the director of the Fundacion Fobia Club in Buenos Aires.

He says virtual reality is a useful tool but it is not enough on its own.

“Virtual reality can help a lot in the initial phase. However, to consolidate the change, the patient needs real experience no matter what. I consider that has a limit that has to do with habituation. When the patient gets used to and controls the stimuli and, in a way, anticipates the reaction that he or she will have in the virtual reality, this no longer has the strength of a treatment,” he says.

Fernando Tarnogol, an Argentine software developer, has worked on a 3D anxiety-management platform since 2013.

He makes patients with a virtual reality headset hold a spider or tilt toward the edge of a building rooftop – whatever they fear more.

The applications of virtual reality are likely to revolutionise the health industry and help cope with a range of mental health disorders, he says.

“Let’s think of autism too: we can train a child with a VR headset in a safe environment so that he or she knows how to cross the road when it is safe, looking at the traffic light and watching out the traffic. When we really think it is safe, we can allow him or her to socialise within the community. This virtual reality technology is a very fertile and virgin field. In the next 10-15 years, when it will reach maturity, we will start seeing things that had never occurred to us.”

A 2014 study from Newcastle University in the UK found that young sufferers of autism can conquer their worst fears in a computer-simulated world.

The 3D experience Fernando creates is made more real with sounds and motion tracking.

Virtual reality therapy is at an experimental stage, but it appears to have a bright future ahead.

This video was produced exclusively for The Associated Press on March 13, 2016. Click here to watch it. If the link is not working, search “ARGENTINA PHOBIAS”.


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