Combating Anxiety with Virtual Reality

Persons with social anxiety disorders panic in certain situations when meeting other people. They are afraid of embarrassing themselves or failing to meet expectations. For example, affected persons may be afraid of approaching other people or of speaking in public. However, their nervousness goes beyond shyness or stage fright. Even apparently trivial circumstances such as paying at the cash desk while shopping can trigger significant stress. As a consequence, they try to avoid critical situations. This avoidance strategy can constrict them significantly in their interaction with other people – with negative consequences, both privately as well as professionally.

Learning to Deal with Fear

„Social anxiety disorders are usually treated with cognitive behavioral therapy, which exposes patients to critical situations. Thus, they learn to manage their fear and build up self-confidence,“ explains Prof. Thomas Wolbers, a neuroscientist at the DZNE’s Magdeburg site. However, such a treatment is quite involved as, for example, certain situations are re-enacted with role play. „It can take a long time before a therapy slot becomes available. And often, treatment is not provided with the necessary intensity because it requires time and personnel. With virtual reality, it is possible to simulate many scenarios relatively easy and realistic. This is where our project comes in.“

On the Path to a New Therapy

The team of Prof. Wolbers has been supported by the European Research Council (ERC) for several years. The scientists are working on methods for the early recognition of dementia. With the aid of computer-generated environments – also referred to as „virtual reality“ (VR) – they research how humans navigate, because problems with spatial orientation are considered as possible early signs of dementia. The now granted additional funds will allow them to apply their expertise also to mental diseases. Ultimately, Wolbers and his colleagues aim to develop their VR-based approach up to marketability. To support this project, the ERC has awarded a “Proof-of-Concept-Grant” to the DZNE.

Programmed scenarios

In matters of hardware, the researchers avail themselves of commercial technology, particularly VR headsets of the latest generation. „We focus on software development,“ explains Wolbers. „This means, we program interactive scenarios, such as a lecture situation. For example, we are able to adjust the number of spectators and whether they get up during the presentation and leave the room.“ In additions, physical reactions are to be measured in real time. „This involves heart rate or eye movement, for example. In this way, it is possible to monitor the stress level and thus assess whether the treatment is effective. With conventional behavioral therapy, it is often difficult to record such data. Measuring the stress response is therefore an important component of our concept.“

For their project, the DZNE researchers are collaborating with the University Hospital Magdeburg. In the long term, they are hoping for additional partners. „VR is a powerful instrument. The therapeutic possibilities are still used only sparingly,“ states Wolbers.

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