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Treating Social Anxiety Disorder with Virtual Reality Therapy

Humans are social creatures. We bond with friends, engage with coworkers, and pair up in relationships. In many ways, we need interaction with other people but, for individuals with social anxiety disorder, being in a social setting can be a huge source of stress and anxiety. This is where virtual reality therapy can help.

The standard treatment for social anxiety is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and in-vivo exposure therapy. This combination physically exposes a person to social situations in small doses, allowing them to gradually desensitize their fear and build up their tolerance. The individual also participates in role playing to learn and practice social skills for even more confidence.

But, being physically present in an anxiety-inducing setting can be difficult, not to mention time consuming when you have to travel to a location. With virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET), however, people with social anxiety can work behind the scenes to challenge their fears in a safe, realistic environment, and in a way that gives them control.

What is Social Anxiety Disorder?

Social Anxiety Disorder is the persistent, sometimes overwhelming anxiety or chronic fear of being in everyday social situations. People who suffer from the disorder feel that they are constantly being watched and judged by those around them. In a social setting, they worry continuously that they will do something to embarrass themselves. While these people are aware they might be making more out of a situation than it really calls for, they can’t help stressing about it anyway.

Social Anxiety can be present in just one area of a person’s life (for example, they may fear giving a speech in front of their team at work) or it may be so encompassing that a person with the disorder finds it extremely traumatic to go to school or work, or perhaps even to the bank or the grocery store.

How does Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy help Social Anxiety?

VR Therapy is a high-tech method that helps people learn effective ways to cope with the anxiety-laden situations they dread. During a VRET session, the person wears a virtual reality headset similar to the kind used in video games or to watch movies on the phone. A simulation program plays and one or more avatars are displayed. The person engages with these avatars in a variety of common social situations in order to become better prepared for interactions in real-life situations.

The programs start at a low threshold of anxiety stimulus and are gradually increased as the person builds their coping skills. A therapist listens in to the session, providing coaching and feedback. Relaxation and stress management techniques are often also used and sometimes medications can provide a benefit.

Virtual reality exposure therapy allows you to feel as if you are in a setting, but the therapist can stop the program if you become truly upset. Even if a person knows the virtual reality program isn’t real, what they experience is enough to trigger an emotional response to their phobia. By working through their reactions, nearly 83 percent of people who have tried virtual reality therapy have managed to put their fears behind them.

How Effective is VRET for Social Anxiety?

In a 2013 study, participants who had been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder took part in a randomized trial that compared virtual reality therapy with in-vivo exposure therapy. The group was assigned to present a speech in front of their peers.

Before doing so, some participants went through eight sessions of VRET, some went through eight sessions of in-vivo exposure therapy, while some were waitlisted and had to give the speech without either type of therapy. After completion of active treatment, both therapy groups showed significant improvement and reduced anxiety levels over the waitlisted group. Furthermore, at the 12-month review, both groups continued to maintain this improvement.

Although more studies will be done in the future, the findings from this one show that there were no significant differences between the physical and virtual treatments. VR therapy is just as effective in treating social anxiety as traditional therapy, but with the benefit of being in an office setting rather than in the actual, emotionally-charged environment.

Did You Know? We’re a Regional Clinic for the National Social Anxiety Center

The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders in Delray Beach, Florida is a regional center for the National Social Anxiety Center. Our certified therapists provide compassionate care and have specialized training in social anxiety treatment and virtual reality therapy. For more information, contact us or call us today at 561-496-1094.


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