Virtual Technology May Offer New Exposure Therapy to Those with Phobias

A recent article explores the possibility of using technological advances to provide avatar based cognitive behavioral therapy. Willem-Paul Brinkman, a researcher at TU Delft, has developed a prototype designed to simulate conditions found in flying in an attempt to help people with phobias of flying. The Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET) may someday be able to provide therapeutic resolution for people suffering with phobias or anxieties, and potentially even social issues such as paranoia. A vibrating seat that mimicked the movements of a passenger airplane seat was among the first of the inventions at the Deft Mental Health Computing Lab. The researchers have since explored the addition of a virtual reality helmet to be worn while clients are in the seat. The combination of sensations, both physical and auditory, would maximize the simulation of flying. This form of exposure therapy would allow therapists to put clients in the situations that they fear in a virtual manner in order to help them overcome their phobia. This will allow professionals to observe and assess the client’s responses more accurately and in a real time environment.

Chaotic and active environments often trigger symptoms for people suffering with social phobias. “We have now conducted research on what happens when we expose people to a busy environment and to people of a different ethnicity; two factors which are known to relate to psychosis. People with paranoia seem to show a similar response to situations in the virtual world as in the real world,” explains Dr Wim Veling from the psychiatric institute Parnassia in Delft Outlook.

The goal of the research is to create a model of cognitive behavioral therapy that will arm a client with the necessary exposure and tools to be able to change their behaviors when in these feared situations. “In the virtual world, we encourage them to respond differently…because [they] know that there is no real danger,” said the researchers.

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • hanna


    May 10th, 2011 at 4:30 AM

    I am claustrophobic and it has set me into a real tailspin at times. I can’t even ride in a small car for a long time because the fear of getting stuck in that car in a traffic jam and having to sit hours and hours is frightening to me. There have been times on elevators and such that I have physically thought that I was going to die, that I could not breathe. I have even passed out from fear in these situations before so I would hope that there is some hope on the horizon for someone like me.

  • gordon


    May 10th, 2011 at 6:18 AM

    it’s very interesting to see how technology,something that is always blamed for new disorders,can come to the aid of people in need and pull them out of trouble.

  • PD


    May 10th, 2011 at 7:24 PM

    …But is it always a good idea to confront your fear in order to overcome it? While it can be be official to some people,I’m unsure of it’s usefulness to everybody.

  • Danielle


    May 11th, 2011 at 4:39 AM

    I see how this could be a great way to ease someone into flying or confronting whatever phobia torments them. Jusy wondering about the overall cost of treatment like this and the availability to patients.

  • GARY


    May 11th, 2011 at 2:22 PM

    Flying is one thing that affects so many people. Just as a recent incident proved to us-how a man tried to ‘get off’ the plane after it had taken off…people do all kind of crazy things…I mean if you have a fear of flying then why get on the plane in the first place…?!

    As far as this new innovation is concerned I believe it is great and that they should work to make this perfect so as to help all those affected by phobias.

  • calum


    May 14th, 2011 at 3:29 PM

    Excellent idea! The biggest upside to this is that the patient can back out at any time. If you’re placed inadvertently in a situation with your trigger, you might not be able to back out at will.

  • Joel


    May 14th, 2011 at 10:25 PM

    @calum–if you can back out, how would you get better? If you’re in a real situation, you can’t back out and it’ll be a much more intense experience, and hopefully will have a stronger impact. Strong enough to cure them, no? Help me understand.

  • Valerie


    May 14th, 2011 at 11:08 PM

    @Joel: That “stronger impact” can also be a very negative one. A phobic person can have panic attacks, screaming fits, or even go completely berserk if their triggers are hit enough. It’s not safe for them to be randomly exposed to the object of their phobia. Doing so in a controlled environment under the supervision of a therapist is a much better idea.

  • Cameron


    May 15th, 2011 at 5:28 PM

    If the human brain can adapt to getting an extreme fear of something, it can adapt out of it the same way. If you overcome something, it becomes far less of a threat to you until it’s almost laughable. If the lesson has to be learned by virtual means, so be it. Whatever works!

  • Pete


    May 15th, 2011 at 5:44 PM

    I know a lad with a severe fear of heights, and he managed to get better by forcing himself to play Just Cause. A fun part of that game involves skydiving from an extreme height all the way to the ground. He’s not fully over his fear but he’s a lot better about being off the ground more than 20 feet. So this makes perfect sense to me.

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