Virtual Reality - Overcoming fear in reality

Posted by Raja Nandhini K on Sun, Dec 18, 2011  
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Fear is an emotional state which every single person would have gone through at some point in his life. The responses of this emotional condition help us in avoiding or protecting ourselves from, any danger. The responses to fear usually are increased blood pressure and heart rate, sweating and anxiety. 

Major fear centre of brain 
Amygdala, a small almond shaped region of the brain is being considered as a crucial centre in sensing the fear and stimulating the corresponding responses.  As per various studies N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors in amygdala aid in the acquisition of conditioned fear, whereas non-NMDA receptors are responsible for the expression of conditioned fear. Thus a phobia begins when an event or something like spider, acting as a stimulus, triggers the response for the conditioned fear. The person eventually is made phobic to the stimulus. This is classical conditioning and hence can be made to unlearn by severing the link between the stimulus and response. 
Any damage to the receptors of amygdala deprives one of fear to anything. This condition becomes harmful as the person looses the ability to react to dangerous situation which acts as the stimuli.

Gradual exposure therapy is considered one of the best physiological therapies to treat phobias.
When a person fears speaking in front of a crowd, he is advised to practise the speech first in front a smaller crowd preferably friends or family. The crowd is the stimuli causing the fear thus increasing the anxiety level. Here the smaller crowd with known people acts as a smaller dosage of stimuli and hence the anxiety level is reduced. On repeated practice no anxiety is caused by the stimuli and thus it stops causing fear. 

Creating these stimulating real life situations in a controlled manner is not always possible and may be too expensive. Hence ‘Virtual Reality’, a latest technology has started gaining popularity in these treatments.
It is a computer generated real life environment as portrayed in famous movie ‘The Matrix’ and William Gibson's Neuromancer .  Even better example is the gaming applications such as car racing where the player virtually feels speed and crashing when the car hits some obstacle. The environment simulated is a 3 dimensional visualization with appropriate stimuli like sound, smell and others being generated to immerse the user in this virtual reality. The user is provided with tactile sensors and the haptic feedback helps in manipulating the scenario as per user response to the various stimuli.

The treatment involves simulation of the virtual environment with the fear causing stimuli in it. For example in few studies to treat Arachnophobia, fear of spiders, spider is generated in the scenario. The therapist has the entire control for changing the scenario as per the patient’s response to the stimuli. Initially the patient is exposed to lower doses of stimuli. Once the anxiety level attenuates the dosage is increased. In this case the patients are asked to touch and feel the spiders. The sensors provide the patient with a feel of touching a real spider. Later the patients are allowed to lift and change the orientation of the spiders. This is done until the patient completely overcomes the fear and the stimuli do not elicit any reaction in the patient.
The success of virtual reality in this treatment greatly depends on the latency period between the patients’ response and the corresponding change in the simulated environment, and simulation of appropriate real life setting which immerses the patient completely in the virtual world.

Various researchers in this treatment have shown the on an average 80-90 % of the patients’ condition has improved drastically.
The treatment on an average requires 5-7 sessions each lasting for around one hour duration.

These treatments using virtual reality is highly beneficial in helping patients overcome road fear while driving, fear of open spaces or of being in crowded, public places like markets, to mention a few.

To know more about virtual reality treatments 

List of various phobias


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