Findings from a large randomized controlled trial published in The Lancet Psychiatry showed that an automated psychological intervention delivered by immersive virtual reality was highly effective in reducing fear of heights. Psychiatrist in Oxford tested the therapy on 100 volunteers with a serious height phobia who responded to adverts on local radio.
A virtual reality session over two weeks significantly reduced the fear of heights for more than two-thirds of people who tried it, the team at the University of Oxford reported. The study is the first to use VR as a treatment without a therapist, which could be the future of psychological interventions.
In the study a virtual reality coach guided them around a 10-storey building with a large open atrium in the centre, gradually encouraging them to lean over the edge to rescue a cat or cross a rope bridge. Having a fear of heights is the most common phobia, with one in five people reporting having a fear of heights during their lifetime, and one in 20 people clinically diagnosed with a fear of heights.
"Immersive VR therapies that do not need a therapist have the potential to dramatically increase access to psychological interventions," said lead author Daniel Freeman from Britain’s University of Oxford. “In [virtual reality] people can experience carefully graded recreations of their difficult situations, which brings on their symptoms, but then be coached in the most helpful ways to respond. The potential is that [virtual reality] treatment can be faster, more powerful and have a greater appeal for patients than traditional mental health approaches.”
He said, “The results are extraordinarily good. We were confident the treatment would prove effective, but the outcomes exceeded our expectations. Over three-quarters of the participants receiving the VR treatments showed at least a halving of their fear of heights. Our study demonstrates that virtual reality can be an extremely powerful means to deliver psychological therapy. We know that the most effective treatments are active: patients go into the situations they find difficult and practise more helpful ways of thinking and behaving. This is often impractical in face-to-face therapy, but easily done in VR.”