Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy Can Help People Overcome Phobias

Woman wears a virtual reality headset for mental health

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study found that combining VR exposure therapy and CBT via an app was successful in helping people treat their phobias.
  • People with common phobias such as a fear of dogs, flying, and needles reported an average reduction in their phobia symptoms of 75% after six weeks.
  • Some people may be prescribed medication to manage symptoms of phobia, while CBT and exposure therapy can help treat the root cause.

Phobias are one of the most common mental disorders in the U.S. with around 10% of the population reporting specific phobia, says the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Specific phobia is defined as an intense, irrational fear of something that in fact poses little or no real danger.

Researchers investigating the impact of virtual reality (VR) on phobias found that a combination of a VR exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—via a new app, oVRcome—had a high success rate in helping participants treat their phobias.

"There has been enormous growth in the number of self-help apps targeting anxiety; however, only about 4% of apps have been rigorously evaluated in peer-reviewed research," says lead researcher Cameron Lacey, an associate professor in the Department of Psychological Medicine at the University of Otago in Christchurch, New Zealand.

"It is very important that people using these apps can have confidence that the app has been shown to work," Lacey adds.

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The Study in Detail

Participants used a new VR app called oVRcome (developed by Christchurch tech entrepreneur Adam Hutchinson) to follow a self-guided therapy program designed to help treat anxiety and common phobias like a fear of spiders, heights, needles, flying, and dogs.

"The demand for participation was overwhelming, with people having lived with their phobia for an average of 26 years," says Lacey.

In total, 129 people took part in a six-week randomized, controlled trial between May 2021 and December 2021, with a 12-week follow-up. Participants were aged between 18 and 64 years and had a fear of flying, heights, needles, spiders, or dogs.

They recorded their progress on weekly questionnaires and had access to a clinical psychologist throughout the trial if they experienced any adverse effects.

Cameron Lacey

People who have lived with a phobia and not been able to access treatment can be confident that oVRcome provides a clinically proven treatment option.

— Cameron Lacey

The app involves what's called exposure therapy, a form of CBT that exposes participants to their specific phobias in short bursts, which aims to build up tolerance to the phobia in a clinically-approved and controlled way.

The results, published in the Australia & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, showed a 75% reduction in phobia symptoms after the six-week treatment program. After this time, some of the participants felt comfortable facing their fears in real life.

"Participants demonstrated a strong acceptability of the app, highlighting its potential for delivering easily accessible, cost-effective treatment at scale, of particular use for those unable to access in-person exposure therapy to treat their phobias," says Lacey.

One participant was confident enough to book an overseas family holiday and another reported that they now felt confident not only knowing there was a spider in the house but that they could possibly remove it themselves.

"People who have lived with a phobia and not been able to access treatment can be confident that oVRcome provides a clinically proven treatment option," Lacey adds.

Why Do People Have Phobias?

Phobias may be caused by different things, says Amy Morin, LCSW, psychotherapist and the editor-in-chief of Verywell Mind.

"Childhood events can contribute to phobias," she says. "The way your parents responded to your fears, for example, may play a big role in how likely you are to develop a phobia."

Genetics may also play a role, Morin adds. This means a family history of anxiety disorders may increase your risk of developing a phobia.

Traumatic experiences can also be linked to phobias; for instance, someone may develop a phobia of driving after a serious car accident or a fear of water after a near-drowning experience.

Amy Morin, LCSW

Childhood events can contribute to phobias. The way your parents responded to your fears, for example, may play a big role in how likely you are to develop a phobia.

— Amy Morin, LCSW

"When someone has a phobia, their tendency is to think that the feared object or experience is terrible," explains Morin.

"They experience intense fear and their body responds as if they are in a life or death situation, which often includes physical symptoms like increased heart rate and sweating."

Those responses affect the person's behavior, which usually leads to avoidance, Morin adds.

"They do whatever they can to get away from the thing that causes great distress. When they are away from their phobia, they calm down and think about how terrible it is that their phobia creates distress—and the cycle continues."

While the new study combined virtual reality with CBT, which addresses the way people think, feel, and behave, some people find that CBT alone is enough to help them manage their phobia.

A therapist who is treating a phobia with CBT will help someone challenge the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that reinforce their fear.

"Over time, they're often gradually exposed to their fear until it doesn't seem so frightening anymore," Morin says.

What This Means For You

If you have a phobia, you may be prescribed medication. Antidepressants, beta blockers, and benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed to help people manage a phobia.

Exposure therapy is another common treatment option, and alternative strategies include hypnotherapy.

If your phobia is affecting your ability to function and enjoy your life, speak to your doctor about different treatment methods.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute of Mental Health. Specific phobia.

  2. Lacey C, Frampton C, Beaglehole B. oVRcome – Self-guided virtual reality for specific phobias: A randomised controlled trial. Australia & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. 2022 July. doi: 10.1177/00048674221110779

By Claire Gillespie
Claire Gillespie is a freelance writer specializing in mental health. She’s written for The Washington Post, Vice, Health, Women’s Health, SELF, The Huffington Post, and many more.