Virtual cures for phobias | Sunday Observer

Virtual cures for phobias

6 March, 2022
A volunteer undergoing Virtual Reality experience
A volunteer undergoing Virtual Reality experience

A phobia has been defined as an unrealistic morbid fear of some animal or object. I had a colleague who had a morbid fear of policemen. While working in the office he used to look through the window to see whether there were any policemen in the vicinity. He used to travel by train from a distant place.

Almost every day he used to tell us how a policeman followed him up to the railway station. While travelling on the train, he was on the alert to see whether anybody was looking at him. One day he came to office and ran to the manager’s office to complain that the police are pursuing him.

At one stage he wanted to resign from his job and stay at home. This kind of ‘police phobia’ is not something unusual. People have various other phobias and most of them do not seek treatment.

If you are suffering from some kind of phobia, you are treated as a patient. It is fairly commonplace to find such people in society. An extreme example of this kind of behaviour studied by Tony Morrison concerned a woman who believed that she was being followed by the IRA (Irish Republican Army). She attempted to mislead her trackers by wearing disguises, varying her routes to local shops and by hiding behind cars at intervals while out walking.

Patients suffering from phobias often fail to notice that the object of their fear cannot harm them because they avoid situations in which it would be obvious.

Instead they perform safety behaviour which keeps them in situations in which their fears never have to be confronted. For instance, a person who is seriously frightened of dogs may stay at home all the time thereby preventing himself from discovering that most dogs are friendly. Similarly, if you are frightened of the police, you will not find that most policemen are helpful.

Morbid fear

Very often the object of our phobia is one with which we will very seldom come into contact. For instance, if you have a morbid fear of snakes, you hardly come across them in the city. On the other hand, most of us have mild irrational fears of certain animals or objects, but they cannot be treated as phobias.

The fear of being in a closed place may be a reaction formation against the desire to be enclosed which may actually be the fear of retaliation against what would happen if one were not kept under control.

There was a patient who was afraid of being trapped in an elevator. Her fear was so strong that she used to walk nine flights of stairs to see her boyfriend. Here the elevator became the symbolic object. Sigmund Freud once reported a woman who was afraid of going out on the streets and held that her fear was an unconscious defence against the desire to become a street walker. We have seen parents who fear injury to their children to a degree that we suspect their desire to provide them with safety. The desire is somewhat unrealistic because parents cannot provide security for their children all the time. When children go to school, parents have no control over them.

Although we speak of phobias most people do not know how to get rid of them. The good news is that there is a new kind of therapy where cures are computer generated. The therapy known as ‘Virtual Reality’ (VR) is used to treat crippling phobias and soothe physical and mental anguish in developed countries. It has even shown promise as a treatment for stubborn conditions such as eating disorders and addictions.

Classical conditioning

Classical conditioning can lead to the development of phobias which are tense and irrational fears. For instance, an insect phobia might develop in someone who is stung by a bee. The insect phobia might be so severe that the victim decides to remain at home all the time.

On the other hand, classical conditioning also accounts for pleasant experiences. You may have a particular fondness for the smell of jasmine because the feelings and thoughts of an early love affair will come back rushing whenever you encounter it. Classical conditioning explains many of the reactions we have to stimuli in the world around us.

Almost all the phobias have corresponding triggers. Heights trigger acrophobia, flying triggers aerophobia, cats trigger ailurophobia, and flowers trigger anthrophobia. Space does not allow me to mention all the triggers and phobias. What you have to remember is that for all our irrational fears there are corresponding triggers.

Phobias may have only a minor impact on our lives if those who suffer from them can avoid the stimuli that trigger fear. Unless you are a professional firefighter or a tightrope walker, a fear of heights will have little impact on your daily life.

However, if you are suffering from xenophobia (fear of strangers), it becomes a serious problem. In an extreme case, a Washington woman left her home just three times in 30 years – once to visit her family, once for a medical operation, and once to purchase ice cream for a dying companion.

Sights and sounds

In a typical virtual reality experience, a helmet blocks out the real world and immerses the patient in the sights and sounds of a computer-generated 3-D world. Through the television screen he will see a single image with realism and depth. Headphones will supply sound and the sensory input will create the illusion of being in the virtual world.

The VR technology has become so popular in the United States that even the US National Institute of Drug Abuse supports 16 VR research projects. Larry Hughes, a computer scientist from Georgia Tech is credited with the invention. In 1993 he teamed up with Barbara Rothbaum from Emory University. They developed a VR program that made acrophobia patients feel that they were ascending in an open elevator. Their experiments showed positive results.

The technique behind VR is fascinating. It allows patients to experience the virtual world and develop responses to cope with their phobias. In fact, VR exposes patients to what they most fear until they learn how to manage their problems.

We have heard of a rich man who boarded a plane on his maiden journey. When the plane took off he was panic stricken and wanted to cancel the trip. He was ready to pay double the fare if the plane landed from where it took off.

A similar instance has been reported from the United States. Moore, an Illinois student, suddenly found herself panicked on a flight. She decided never to board a plane again.

In order to avoid air travel, she began to follow a course at a university close to her residence. After marriage she insisted that her honeymoon should be in a nearby hotel. When the couple moved to Washington, she found that travelling by air for long distances was a nightmare.

Digital simulation

In order to get over her fear of flights, she relied on counselling. However, it did not have the desired effect. Then she consulted VR practitioner Keith Saylor. While sitting in Saylor’s office she found herself ‘on a jet.’ The digital simulation made her feel that she was on a real flight.

The VR flight was so real that she asked Saylor to land the jet at the nearest airport. After some more VR flights Moore felt that she was ready for a real plane trip. Moore’s success in the VR flight is not a fantasy.

It has been backed by scientific evidence. Her success prompted 14 other fear-of-flying patients to undergo VR therapy. Within six months 13 patients got rid of their phobias.

Today VR therapy is a potential tool against all types of addictions as well. Emory’s Rothbaum has developed a ‘Virtual Crack house’ for drug addicts. Very soon VR therapy will be available even for alcoholics and chain smokers. It is also being used to relieve patients undergoing painful medical procedures. When patients are engrossed in VR simulation they pay less attention to pain signals.

Like any other science, VR therapy is being further developed by scientists. Skip Rizzo, a University of Southern California researcher, uses ‘Virtual Classrooms’ that help him to manipulate distractions and gauge students’ reactions. [email protected]