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Virtual Reality Helping Cure Anxiety Disorders

Virtual Reality Helping Cure Anxiety Disorders


Patients at the University of Minnesota Medical Center-Fairview are learning to overcome their fears by facing them. Sort of.

For most of the past year, the university’s main teaching hospital has been using an advanced virtual reality program to help desensitize patients to experiences that provoke fear and anxiety. The system is a combination of hi- and low-tech stimulation. For example, a patient with a fear of flying will don the virtual reality headset, placing him or her in the cabin of a plane from the runway, through takeoff and during a turbulent, stormy flight. The visual stimulation from the headset is complimented by woofers in the floor that simulate engine vibrations. But the turbulence itself comes from an observing psychiatrist simply shaking the patient’s chair.

Current virtual reality work at the Anxiety Disorders Clinic focuses primarily on the fears of flying and public speaking, but there are also programs to treat the fear of storms, heights, enclosed spaces and being interviewed. Regardless of the specific fear, the aim is to create as realistic an experience as possible. Without realism, the patient is unlikely to feel afraid, and so won’t become desensitized to the situation.

“Immersion is everything for this to be a viable therapy,” says Dr. Matt Kushner, director of the clinic. “We match the sights and sounds of the real experience.”

But one or two virtual experiences, no matter how realistic, won’t cure a lifelong fear. Kushner says it takes multiple sessions and dedication on the part of the patient. Even then, a successful treatment won’t erase the memory of a traumatic experience. The virtual reality program simply provides an avenue to deal with those fears in a non-frightening environment.

“We sort of lay down a new track beside the scary one,” Kushner says. “This is like exercise — it’s a discipline. You have to keep it up.”

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