In The Field

ESOF: Treating phobias with virtual reality

Virtual reality, once a techno-toy for the curious and wealthy, is becoming an important tool for helping people cope with stressful situations. Here at the ESOF meeting in Munich, a pair of researchers presented some intriguing new work on how to treat phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder using virtual reality.

One project helps people cope better with the stress of earthquakes. Ioannis Tarnanas, a psychologist in Thessalonica, Greece (, somehow talks subjects into strapping on a pair of virtual reality glasses and experiencing a virtual earthquake. He says it´s useful for kids in particular, who can take a trip through a safe environment such as their school and then see it in ruins. They can be scared during the five-minute process, he says, but data suggest that those who have gone through the training are far less likely to suffer psychological damage if and when a real earthquake hits. Tarnanas has even used this to teach children with Downs syndrome how to cope with a quake, he says.

At a press conference Tarnanas was joined by the man behind the technology: Martijn Boosman of E-semble Corporation in Delft, the Netherlands. He´s been working with an older and far more experienced crowd, who he says can still be helped immensely by virtual reality. Firemen, police officers, medical personnel and other emergency services staff can use VR goggles to recreate a particular fire or crash scene that they found disturbing. The user can click and add cars, fire trucks, people, or whatever into a scene to represent what he or she has just been through. The details aren´t as important as the fact that the user is experiencing the moment again, says Boosman: People often start to sweat as they sit quietly in the chair, reliving the moments again.

It´s the same approach the US military has been using for years, to debrief soldiers after they return from stressful assignments. Now ordinary people may have the same shot at conquering their fears for good.


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