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Program for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Studies

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Why Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy?

VR affords both clinician and patient several advantages. For patients who are reluctant to engage in recollections of feared memories, VR provides a sensory-rich and evocative therapeutic environment which allows patients to experience a "sense of presence" in the Virtual environment. In addition, VR technology allows for graded exposure to increasingly feared environments that can be carefully monitored and tailored to the individual patient's needs. VR environments can be manipulated above and beyond the constraints of the everyday world, creating new possibilities for therapeutic action. As a result, VR therapy experiences can increase patients' feelings of self-efficacy and of being active agents of their own experience. In addition, patients have been found to be more willing to consider VR work than other forms of exposure therapy. For instance, the VR world often does not include the same risks as returning to the feared environment and patients can feel supported in knowing that the therapist viewing the Virtual environment is sharing in their experiences.

The Virtual Reality System

For VR exposure therapy, the patient wears a virtual reality helmet that positions two goggle-sized miniature computer monitor screens close to the eyes. The scenery in VR changes as the user moves his or her head orientation (e.g., virtual objects in front of the user in VR get closer as the user, wearing the VR helmet, leans forward in the real world). Small speakers close to the patient's ears produce sounds consistent with the virtual environment, and, in some cases, a moving platform is used to enhance the Virtual Reality experience. The combination of these techniques give users a uniquely compelling experience of "being there" in the virtual world and greatly contribute to therapeutic success.

Readings

Rothbaum & Hodges, 1999 Rothbaum BO & Hodges LF. The use of virtual reality exposure in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Behavior Modification , 23: 507-525, 1999.

Rizzo, Wiederhold & Buckwalter, 1998 Rizzo AA, Wiederhold M, & Buckwalter JG. Basic issues in the use of virtual environments for mental health applications. In: Riva, G & Wiederhold, RK (eds.), Virtual environments in clinical psychology and neuroscience: Method and techniques in advanced patient-therapist interactions , 21-42, 1998.

Botella, C., Banos, R.M., Perpina, C., Villa, H., Alcaniz, M. & Rey, M. Virtual reality treatment of claustrophobia: a case report. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 36, 239-246, 1998.

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