This High-Tech Form of Therapy Could Help You Defeat Your Worst Anxieties

Although workplace anxieties can be quite debilitating, many people hesitate to seek traditional care. Often, they’re reluctant to take medication or to enter long-term therapy. However, the longer they wait to intervene, the worse they become. Studies indicate that early intervention will result in an earlier return to work and reduce the likelihood of permanent disability. And when people are less anxious, presenteeism drops and productivity improves.

While many people think of virtual reality as a way to enhance gaming, few are aware of the research demonstrating its usefulness for treating anxiety.

Typically, treatment for anxiety disorders includes introducing the individual to small doses of real-life situations. This exposure therapy helps desensitize fears and build confidence, but time, distance, and costs are major roadblocks to treatment. VR helps eliminate those obstacles.

2012 meta-analysis demonstrated that virtual reality exposure therapy — or VRET — is a promising intervention for the treatment of anxiety disorders. Of the 23 studies identified, the results showed that for anxiety disorders, VRET does far better than the waitlist control. In addition, VRET and cognitive behavioral therapy interventions produced similar results.

In my professional experience, I have seen that VRET has a powerful real-life impact, similar to that of the classical evidence-based treatments. What’s more, the results last over time: The greater the time spent in VRET, the greater its effect.

See Yourself Conquering Your Fears

With affordable, mobile VR headsets becoming more available, VRET is emerging as a viable answer in helping specific work-related anxieties. One can do VRET at the office, and it will save time if used in conjunction with an online therapist.

By immersing yourself in controlled situations, you can learn to overcome your fears and conquer common workplace anxieties such as:

1. Fear of Elevators, Heights, Flying, or Enclosed Spaces

When Mark (name changed to protect confidentiality) was promoted, he was asked to move to a corner cubicle on the 52nd floor of his building, and he was told that his job would involve more air travel. This activated his fears of heights, elevators, closed spaces, and flying. While he completed the move, he dreaded going to his office every day, not realizing that he was suffering from a condition known as “specific phobia.” Just the thought of taking a flight paralyzed him.

Mark is the kind of person who would benefit from VRET. A recent review of 14 studies on specific phobias demonstrated that people who receive exposure therapy using VR improved significantly. They didn’t actually need real-life exposure to overcome these anxieties. A few early studies have also demonstrated that VR-based treatments may help people with airplane phobia. Up to 93% of people with flying phobias may respond to VR-based treatment.

To help conquer the fear of flying, the individual is shown virtual scenery that includes the interior of an aircraft and a window view accompanied by movements simulating takeoff, landing, and air turbulence. For fear of elevators, images and simulations mimicking elevator rides are used. For fear of heights, images of walking through a rooftop garden or climbing up a fire escape may be used.

Before long, someone like Mark will overcome his fears and be able to go to the office or travel without added anxiety and stress. You can begin to see results within a day. You can participate weekly, or if you spend more time in treatment per day, you can complete these protocols within a week.

2. Fear of Public Speaking or Presenting at Board Meetings

Although Julia (name changed to protect confidentiality) was extremely proficient at her job, when the time came to share her research with her team or the board at her company, she wavered and was perceived as insecure. She didn’t have the time to explore the deep underpinnings of this fear, but when she heard that VR could be helpful, she was relieved because she was an introvert and wanted to overcome this fear on her own.

To overcome the fear of speaking, VRET can put the individual in front of a crowded room. The audience size can be adjusted, and the simulator can teach the individual how to cope with distractions that might otherwise disrupt the speech. Research showed that four 15-minute sessions per week effectively reduced anxiety in public speaking.

One study indicated that VR was equal to traditional cognitive behavioral therapy in overcoming the fear of public speaking. Even one year later, these treatment gains persist. There are fewer studies here, compared to specific phobias, but the results are encouraging.

3. Excessive Worry about Being Good Enough

A study of 2,000 Millennials found that many feel increasingly overwhelmed and fear they’re not good enough. This worry may not meet the criteria for generalized anxiety disorder, yet one-third of Millennials suffer from impostor syndrome in the workplace, worrying that they may not be qualified for their jobs. In addition to exposure therapies, VR can also help people manage their worry by exposing them to relaxing situations.

In 2010, a team of researchers administered a VR protocol to people with generalized anxiety disorder to see whether they improved. While subjects watched this, they also received an audio narrative teaching them progressive relaxation, a technique in which they learned how to relax their muscles throughout the body. They were also taught how to breathe differently. Participants were exposed to VR with biofeedback, exposed to VR without biofeedback, or waitlisted.

In both VR groups — but not in the waitlisted group — there was an improvement in the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, though the group receiving biofeedback had significantly less anxiety. This is the only study that shows efficacy in generalized anxiety disorder so far.

VRET helps individuals overcome anxieties by having them confront their biggest fears. Rather than avoiding situations where they might feel uncomfortable, people who go through VRET treatment can have an increased quality of life.