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Experts are using virtual reality to treat phobias


Not many people enjoy discovering a spider dangling from their bedroom ceiling and some experience full blown anxiety as a result.

But now experts say virtual reality could be used to help those suffering from debilitating phobias.

The Sydney Phobia Clinic offers clients medical and psychological treatment for a range of fears and uses augmented reality as part of the programme.

‘We treat the more common ones like a fear of heights, of flying, spiders and dogs, but we can also tailor our program to suit a whole range of fears,’ Co-founder Corrie Ackland told Daily Mail Australia.

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Yikes! If you're afraid of bugs and insects like spiders virtual reality might prove to be a good tool for confronting your phobia

Yikes! If you're afraid of bugs and insects like spiders virtual reality might prove to be a good tool for confronting your phobia

Yikes! If you’re afraid of bugs and insects like spiders virtual reality might prove to be a good tool for confronting your phobia

Using virtual reality follows the idea that if you are presented with the phobic stimulus more than a handful of times in a safe environment your fear will diminish over time (stock image)

Using virtual reality follows the idea that if you are presented with the phobic stimulus more than a handful of times in a safe environment your fear will diminish over time (stock image)

Using virtual reality follows the idea that if you are presented with the phobic stimulus more than a handful of times in a safe environment your fear will diminish over time (stock image)

Ms Ackland said that phobias are most common in a ‘high functioning society where people tend to open up to their therapists about a whole range of other issues but suppress talk about their fears.’

It is coming in to ‘awareness’ about your phobia which is always the first priority for clinicians, Ms Ackland said. 

The clinic offers five sessions to ‘strategise ways to reduce your anxiety around the source of the problem’. 

A fear of wounds can be combated by seeing a scar or cut in your leg via an augmented reality

A fear of wounds can be combated by seeing a scar or cut in your leg via an augmented reality

A fear of wounds can be combated by seeing a scar or cut in your leg via an augmented reality

Each session is between 60 to 90 minutes and runs at a cost of $1,660 in total.

The most common phobias Ms Ackland and her team come across, which are generally the most common around the world, are a fear of heights, spiders, small spaces, needles, blood, dogs, flying, public speaking, weather and vomiting. 

These are addressed through a virtual reality session which involves either showing 360 degree footage of the fear or an augmented reality. 

Fear of enclosed spaces might present itself by way of being in an MRI scanner

Fear of enclosed spaces might present itself by way of being in an MRI scanner

Fear of enclosed spaces might present itself by way of being in an MRI scanner

For example, one woman was shown a 360 degree view of Ibis birds in order to control her anxiety around the birds.

Using virtual reality is known as exposure therapy and follows the idea that if you are presented with the phobic stimulus more than a handful of times in a safe environment your fear will diminish over time.

The clinic teaches you how to relax your muscles in the presence of spiders or birds in order to identify where your anxiety stems from. 

Virtual reality means you never have to come into contact with your phobia – just experience it in the room.

The clinic offers five sessions to 'strategise ways to reduce your anxiety around the source of the problem'. In this case pictured it would be the dentist

The clinic offers five sessions to 'strategise ways to reduce your anxiety around the source of the problem'. In this case pictured it would be the dentist

The clinic offers five sessions to ‘strategise ways to reduce your anxiety around the source of the problem’. In this case pictured it would be the dentist

Alternatively a fear of needles and blood might see you confronted with a doctors surgery getting an injection

Alternatively a fear of needles and blood might see you confronted with a doctors surgery getting an injection

Alternatively a fear of needles and blood might see you confronted with a doctors surgery getting an injection

‘We have made a lot of the videos ourselves. One of my colleagues even filmed himself throwing up after a big lunch for those with a fear of vomiting,’ Ms Ackland said.

‘We can whip up a foul-smelling bowl of Parmesan cheese to resemble the scent of vomit too.’

Other times the sessions are done in situ. For example, a fear of heights might be managed by taking the client to the top of a tower in Sydney.

‘If you’re trying to get through a phobia it’s important that you really try to identify all of the things you’re actively avoiding,’ Ms Ackland said.

‘For instance, do you walk out of the room when people start talking about spiders? 

‘Exposing yourself to the problem by managing your thoughts and breathing is the best way to start pushing through the fear.’



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