Virtual reality treatment for phobias

According to a recent article on the Guardian’s ‘Notes and Theories’ section, approximately 10 million people in the UK are believed to have some form of phobia: that’s out of a total UK population of 64 million. (I would tell you what percentage that was but I have a fear of calculating statistics.)

The vast majority of those phobias are not causing these people to visit their GPs or report them in any other way (so the 10 million figure is an estimate and we don’t know from the Guardian what this estimate is based on), but for some people their phobias cause them to make significant changes in the way they live their lives. The NHS lists the top ten phobias in the UK (from a survey by Anxiety UK) as:

  • social phobia – fear of interacting with other people
  • agoraphobia – fear of open public spaces
  • emetophobia – fear of vomiting
  • erythrophobia – fear of blushing
  • driving phobia – fear of driving
  • hypochondria – fear of illness
  • aerophobia – fear of flying
  • arachnophobia – fear of spiders
  • zoophobia – fear of animals
  • claustrophobia – fear of confined spaces.

The new AQA A Level specification puts phobias together with the behavioural approach to psychology, in which we learn about (amongst other things) the two-process model as an explanation for why phobias develop, and systematic desensitisation (SD) as a technique for treating phobias. This Guardian article is mostly about using virtual reality SD techniques as a way of treating phobias that are difficult to recreate in other ways – for example the phobias for public speaking or flying. What is good about phobias, in virtual reality terms, is that the simulation doesn’t need to be entirely realistic because the parts of the brain that produce the initial anxiety – the insula and amygdala – pick up on any trigger relating to the feared situation: a waggly, spidery leg is enough for someone with arachnophobia.

As we know, many people can relate their phobias directly to personal experience – they were once sick on a train, for example, and now they are worried about being sick every time they go on a train. Others pick up fears from the media even if they have not had a bad experience themselves – this is common for those with aerophobia. But for around one third of sufferers, the cause of their phobia is not known. It might be that they have simply forgotten it – perhaps it happened when they were very young. However, this Guardian article offers another possible explanation which might be useful for those evaluating the behavioural approach to phobias:

‘While there is currently no evidence that this occurs in humans, research involving animal models  suggests the effect of traumatic experiences can be passed from the brain to the genome and inherited by future generations. Scientists found that the offspring of mice conditioned to experience fear when exposed to a particular odour became fearful when they were exposed to the same smell.’

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