Facing Fears with Virtual Reality Therapy

Facing Fears with Virtual Reality Therapy

You’re on an airplane in the middle of a storm, lightning flashing outside the window, your seat rocking. “I’m scared,” says the passenger next to you. Your own anxiety, already high, rockets — even though you know you aren’t really on an airplane at all, but sitting safely in a therapist’s office in suburban Chicago.

Welcome to virtual reality (VR) therapy, which is being used to help patients deal with a host of conditions, including phobias, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive compulsive disorder and addiction.

With VR therapy, patients wear 3D virtual reality goggles that enable them to immerse themselves in scenes related to their condition: a stage with a podium and audience, if they’re afraid of public speaking; bridges, if they have a fear of heights; a war zone in Iraq, if they’re trying to get past PTSD after active duty. Patients hear, feel and even smell aspects of their virtual experience, such as the sounds of people talking, vibrations in their chairs or the scent of gunfire.

While this is happening, patients are monitored by a therapist who can help them with breathing or other calming exercises during the stressful scenario. The therapist may also remove them from the situation if their terror or anxiety gets too high, substituting a relaxation scenario instead.

“The ultimate goal is for people to learn to deal with these situations in real life,” says Taylor Newendorp, LCPC, a counselor at Chicago Counseling Center. Newendorp has been using virtual reality with patients for two years and says usually it takes only three to five sessions for people to see positive results.

Patrick McGrath, PhD, a clinical psychologist with AMITA Health, has been using VR in his practice for about 10 years. During that time, the graphics and quality have improved markedly, he says, and the impact has increased as well. “People are amazed. They often walk into it thinking it’s going to be like a video game and it won’t bother them, but after they’re done they say they can’t believe how triggering it was.”

Not only is VR more impactful than just watching videos of frightful scenarios, but also it’s often more practical than trying to expose patients to real-life situations — such as getting on a plane for an individual who is afraid of flying, Newendorp says.

McGrath has recently begun offering VR for addictions such as alcoholism. Patients can virtually visit a party where alcohol is served or a store where it’s on sale. During the experience, McGrath wafts scents of alcohol at the client.

“It was pretty intense,” says Bruce, 60, a Palatine resident who did VR therapy with McGrath while in treatment for his alcoholism. Bruce, who asked that his last name not be used for privacy, experienced walking through a liquor store and grew anxious facing bottles of alcohol. “It’s eye-opening,” he says of the opportunity to face fears in a safe environment.

After practicing deep breathing and other coping skills during the virtual encounters, Bruce says he doesn’t think he will be triggered by the sight of alcohol in a grocery store. “I feel a lot more positive than I have in years,” he adds.

McGrath is confident that VR will be offered for even more conditions as the years go by. “I think in the next decade, there’s going to be VR for almost anything you can imagine.”

Originally Published in Fall 2018/Winter 2019 issue of Chicago Health
Taylor Newendorp, LCPC, uses virtual reality to help patients overcome fears and anxiety. Photo by James Foster