Virtual Reality App May Help Treat Fear of Heights — New Study

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Just how effective is virtual reality technology in mitigating a person’s fear of heights? 

A new study contributes to the growing body of data supporting this technology’s ability to treat extreme, irrational fears. Through a clinical trial, researchers from the University of Basel, led by Professor Dominique de Quervain, tested their smartphone-based VR application called Easy Heights, which projects elevated landscapes upon use. 

According to a press release on the University of Basel’s official website, the study results from the team’s observations concerning phobia treatment. And among these observations is people who have acrophobia (or a fear of heights) often hesitate to seek professional help. 

The study, which was published in February this year, determined people’s reluctance might come from an approach called “in vivo exposure therapy”. In this approach, people with acrophobia are physically brought to triggering situations — in this case, high places — to overcome their anxiety. Other limitations of current treatments targeting acrophobia include costliness, intensive preparations, and liability concerns, the study says.

For these reasons, the research team developed the application and studied its potential to substitute or supplement therapy for phobias.

Image credits to Unsplash

How Did the Virtual Reality App Help Mitigate the Participants’ Fear of Heights?

The study comprised more than 70 participants, with 42 of the participants exhibiting symptoms of phobia, which are indicated in the DSM-5. The researchers conducted the test in two phases. In the first phase, the session lasted for 60 minutes, and in the second phase, training spanned more than 15 days.

Using Easy Heights, the participants had three environments to choose from, which were a “rural mountain, cloudy weather, [and an] urban town”. These Easy Heights environments are photos of real places, which the app displays in a panoramic view. 

To give the participants a sense of exposure to their triggers, the application had the ability to simulate increasing elevations within the environment. According to the study, participants could choose to observe their chosen environment from a total of 16 height levels.

To make the experience extra immersive, the application accompanied each environment’s panoramic image with aural elements. This meant as the participants went farther and farther up, different sounds would play. Before progressing, participants’ level of fear, which was measured by a scale, had to be “3 or below for two consecutive ratings”.

The Study’s Findings: Virtual Reality Treatment via Smartphones

In a nutshell, the researchers found their application is “highly effective” in combating acrophobia after repeated use. After the first phase, the group that used Easy Heights reported a level of reduced fear after an hour-long session. 

But in the second phase, which lasted over 15 days, participants who used Easy Heights showed significant improvement in their behavioral avoidance test scores. This test assessed the participants’ behavior toward their height triggers. Through the study’s methods, the group also managed to observe the effects of their Easy Heights in real-life situations.

With the participants’ newfound ability to overcome their acrophobia, they were “able to ascend further towards the top than they could before completing the training,” the press release says. 

Image credits to Pixabay

What Makes This Approach Effective?

Research shows acrophobia is a common phobia, affecting as many as one in 20 people. Those who suffer from this disorder often experience symptoms similar to those of anxiety, which can be incredibly debilitating. So how come not many sufferers seek professional help despite the success rate of current therapies?

As we touched upon earlier, the study cites one of the main reasons why both psychotherapists and patients are hesitant about the currently available methods. And that is because not many people are “willing to expose themselves to the feared stimuli voluntarily”. This is what a VR-based approach intends to solve.

Integrating virtual reality technology into different types of therapy is not a new concept. However, the study’s lead author Dr. Dorothée Bentz explains why their work makes VR more accessible to a broader group of people:

What is new, however, is that smartphones can be used to produce the virtual scenarios that previously required a technically complicated type of treatment, and this makes it much more accessible. 

— Dr. Dorothée Bentz

The press release adds Easy Heights will soon be made available to users, who can go through sessions from their homes’ safety.

Older Studies Linking Reduced Fear of Heights to Effective Virtual Reality Training

The medical field has been using virtual reality technology to treat patients for decades. Whether such treatments require intraoperative or therapeutic care, VR has been consistently successful in helping patients recover. And older studies have shown that. 

For example, a team of Oxford researchers conducted a study in 2018 that testifies to how powerful virtual reality is in reducing people’s fear of heights. The results show that out of the 49 participants who went through the VR-based treatment, 34 reported not having acrophobia any longer.

In another study, which is very similar to the one conducted by the researchers from the University of Basel, researchers from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the University of Twente developed an application called ZeroPhobia that combines VR and cognitive behavioral therapy to manage a person’s height-induced anxiety. According to lead researcher Dr. Tara Donker, one of the advantages sufferers gain from using their approach is accessing “effective treatment without needing expensive equipment”. 

Image credits to Pexels

Is Virtual Reality Technology Really the Future of Therapy Addressing Acrophobia?

With all the research and positive outcomes coming together over time, we can see how virtual reality technology is a helpful alternative to current treatments for acrophobia. However, most of the studies suggest these applications won’t be replacing standard therapies any time soon. 

In the Easy Heights study, researchers note there are limitations to the app requiring further exploration.

For example, the participants they recruited were likely to accept modern technology as a way to address their fear of heights, but that does not necessarily indicate what the general population’s feelings are on the matter. Additionally, the group did not factor into their study the optimal number of sessions before a person can confidently say they have been completely healed from acrophobia.

That said, we think virtual reality is still a good approach to learning and relearning ideas, something that can be useful in therapy. Today, however, VR seems to be some years away from becoming a fully developed and fully accepted tool to cure mental health issues.

In Summary

The University of Basel conducted a study tackling how effective their virtual reality-based smartphone application is in mitigating a person’s fear of heights.

Between the control group and the group that used their app called Easy Heights, the latter showed significant progress and reduced acrophobia after the trial period.

Virtual reality is an amazing tool, and while it still needs to be studied in the field of therapy, it has shown to be extremely effective in learning.

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Justine Jordan

Justine Jordan

Justine Jordan is a content and copy writer. She has written for a popular business daily in the Philippines and for various startups across the globe before transitioning to work for NarraSoft. She graduated cum laude from the University of the Philippines-Diliman with a bachelor's degree in journalism.