Faye Nugent’s fear of escalators became so debilitating that it began to interfere with her daily life.
The UK-based project manager, 52, can recall a phobia that began as a fear of heights. She remembers being in her early thirties and on a weekend away with some friends.
“As part of this weekend we decided to do some adventure activities, which involves climbing a pole and then going out through ropes at different heights,” she told CBC Radio. texture.
When it came time to walk the rope, Nugent couldn’t do it. I froze with fear. Then, whenever she was in a situation involving heights, she would begin to feel dizzy and the “overwhelming feeling of anxiety” would overwhelm her.
For the next twenty years, I avoided heights as much as possible, especially escalators. The breaking point came in 2018 when she was at an airport in the Netherlands with some colleagues.
“[They] She was heading towards an escalator with luggage to get off and check in.” Nugent had to catch up with them but he was terrified.
Soon after, I heard an announcement on the radio from the University of Oxford. The researchers were looking for people with a fear of heights to take part in a new clinical trial. The experiment involved testing a new virtual reality technology as a therapeutic tool.
“I thought, ‘Okay, this is it,’” Nugent said. “This is something I can try and get back to some kind of normalcy in my day-to-day life.”
Virtual reality (VR)-based therapy combines other forms of therapy, including talk and technology, allowing patients to immerse themselves in their concerns in a creative way. It has been used to treat PTSD, anxiety, and other mental health diagnoses.
In Nugent’s case, a form of virtual exposure therapy presented her with challenging situations in a controlled environment.
John Francis Leader, a psychologist and cognitive scientist specializing in psychology and technology at University College Dublin, said that by using virtual reality glasses, a patient can pause an experience or move away from it if it feels too overwhelming.
The researcher describes the approach as “the park meets the therapy.” He said that VR therapy is still an emerging field, and at its core is a mixture of the physical, the virtual, and the imaginary.
Hypothetical scenarios to challenge phobias
On its own, fantasy can be a very strong trigger for anxiety, Lederer said.
“A lot of times someone does some kind of mental training using visualization,” he said.
The problem is whether [or not] They’ve had real-life experiences of the challenge, and they’ve imagined it so many times that it feels like they’ve been through a thousand difficult experiences.”
Researcher Stéphane Bouchard believes that VR-based therapy treats phobias by stimulating the amygdala – the part of the brain that triggers the fear response – and causing an emotional reaction. With the support of the therapist, the patient can respond to this reaction in a logical way, which helps to reframe the phobia.
said the University of Quebec professor in Outaouais, who has been studying cyberpsychology since the 1990s.
During Nugent’s treatment, she was taken to a shopping center in Oxford and told to go down the escalator while she was being photographed by the researcher. You couldn’t do that. “I was afraid for myself,” she said.
She was then given a VR headset to wear, and entered the world she describes as “very cartoon-like, very blocky”. It wasn’t real at all, she said, and yet the tasks that were given to her in this virtual space still evoked a sense of fear in her.
At first, the challenges were simple, like leaning against a balcony, but they became progressively more difficult and “more scary,” she said.
“I had to do things like rescue a cat from a tree,” she said. Another challenge was “getting off a rickety railroad”.
The final task, which Nugent said was the scariest, was standing in the shopping center as it filled with water when suddenly “a killer whale came in, and I had to stand on its nose as it swam,” she said.
Even though it was virtual and she knew she was safe in an office, Nugent said she experienced the same fears and physical responses as she did in real life.
“My heart was beating fast, I was feeling anxious, and I was feeling a little sweaty,” she recalls. Eventually, those feelings subsided.
Virtual reality is an alternative to real world experiences
The leader said that this kind of annoyance can be beneficial.
“When someone is feeling anxious about something, confronting or interacting with that particular thing more often is a very important part of the therapeutic process,” he said.
This type of exposure therapy is popular, but virtual reality allows doctors to use it in a new way, especially when setting up a scenario is challenging.
Exposure therapy for someone living with social anxiety is one example. Helping this person interact with other people can be helpful, but because of their anxiety, it can be difficult to do so organically.
“This is where VR can be very useful,” he said, “because you can create a scene with other characters, other people in it, and the person can wear a VR headset and they can practice.”
Bouchard said that VR in and of itself is not therapeutic. Alternatively, virtual reality can be a tool in a therapist’s toolkit alongside traditional therapy.
“You can buy a VR system. They won’t treat you. You can buy a VR system.” [for] Spiders or fear of flying. He will not treat you.
“The treatment is much more complex, and virtual reality is just a detail in the whole story.”
As technology advances — and patient comfort with virtual reality — he said such systems could prove useful in teletherapy, connecting people to remote therapists. He noted that advances in artificial intelligence may also provide better options for VR-based therapy, but those options are more akin to a self-help book for now.
For Nugent, the virtual practice helped reset her perception of risk. After spending a morning doing tasks in a virtual reality environment, the Oxford researchers took her back to the shopping center and told her to go down again via the escalator.
“I just got it on without a second thought,” she said.
Nugent was surprised by her newfound reaction to heights. “I just thought, ‘I don’t understand what happened here. My feelings from this morning or anxiety are completely gone,'” she said.
Although she said this didn’t completely eradicate her fear of heights, Nugent says the impact of VR therapy on her life has been “huge.”
At the age of 51, she took her first skating lesson – something she had never imagined possible.
“I can go shopping with my daughter and not worry about escalators in malls,” she said.