Treating your phobias and addictions is possible thanks to the virtual

The flight, elevator, motorway phobia, anxiety in general, but also addictions can be treated with brief therapy using computer-generated images.

The treatment usually lasts about ten sessions. © Adobe Stock

Tired of diving into the heavily sponsored and sanitized metaverse? We understand you. However, virtual reality also has applications entirely dedicated to personal and therefore collective well-being. Helmet on head, sensors in hand, in a consulting room we can immerse ourselves in a problematic life situation and get our brain to accept it…”Through a habituation process, the brain associates flying in an airplane with relaxation, for example“, explains Nathan Walzer, clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of anxiety disorders, who practices virtual reality therapy at the Center hospitalier Le Domaine (ULB) in Braine-l’Alleud. Of course, deep down we know that we are not really in context, but psychological work can take place. “We are already producing positive lessons. In the virtual level you can relax, breathe, wait, think differently and thus endure better.”

It has been a good decade since this tool enriched the range of cognitive and behavioral therapies (CBT) in Belgium. But the new generation of helmets has only recently arrived. Nathan Walzer became interested when he was working at the Vertigo Center in Uccle. “Long before psychologists, balance physiotherapists who treat balance problems used virtual reality to desensitize vertigo. I found that a number of studies have shown the validity of the method for treating anxiety disorders and phobias in particular, but also OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), social anxiety, panic disorder (the fact of having repeated anxiety attacks, being afraid). having it on a daily basis, which implies avoidance), post-traumatic stress, or addiction.”

control society

A whole host of anxiety disorders have emerged or worsened in the wake of the health crisis: difficulty finding your way back to school, going back to face-to-face work, driving again, attending mass gatherings, or going to places like malls to socialize connect with others…”Losing the experience of certain situations leads to anticipating more, committing less, or doing it with more fear. Virtual reality therapy allows you to resume a number of habits that may have been forgotten, says the psychologist. Post-Covid situations aside, I have a lot of autobahn phobias. But also phobias such as vomiting, blood, injections, acrophobia, i.e. the phobia of height, of emptiness: people who can no longer cross bridges, take certain stairs or paths at a height, can go from a certain floor onto a balcony… all of them that can be treated well.” Behavioral (gambling) and substance (drug, alcohol, tobacco) addictions. “The patient is exposed to situations that give pleasure and he learns to regulate this desire, to postpone the reaction, to wait, to calm down.

In the background of fear we can point to the control society in which we live. “There is one strongly conveyed idea that I find quite problematic: that of managing your emotions. To speak of emotion management is to use an economic term for yourself. And an idea of ​​influence. However, I find it more important than dealing with one’s own emotions, I find it important to learn to welcome them, to accept them. The more we try to be in control, the more we miss it in some situations. The patients I see systematically describe themselves as needing control or having trouble letting go. For anxious people having a first crisis in a situation, this will crystallize and generate heightened alertness.

Advanced and safe

The main advantage of virtual reality therapy is that you can progress very gradually, at the speed that is ideal for the patient and in a safe environment. The avoidances (taking the plane, taking the freeway, speaking in public, attending a meeting with colleagues…) are associated with a sense of anxiety, which is an emotional suffering. We don’t want to face a situation that scares us, that is completely human. This can obviously lead to deactivation. The therapy is very progressive: the patient is very gently confronted with the object of his fear. “We can custom make. We adapt to people’s needs. Depending on the case, different types of exposures are carried out. This adaptability is facilitated by technology at the operational level. In one day of consultation, I can ride the subway with one patient, take the elevator with another, take the freeway twice and get on a plane… And all this in a safe and confidential way, since we don’t meet anyone. Before virtual reality, I really had to accompany the patient with phobia to the place of his fear. It also works very well, but generates more abandonment because in “real” reality it’s sometimes too confronting.

Virtual reality serves as a springboard. It is a tool that encourages motivation to face reality by increasing a sense of personal effectiveness. In practice, however, the therapy also takes place afterwards. “We prepare the person very well and then, after the virtual reality sessions, accompany the person with elevator phobia in the elevator, which is in our building, for example. You can also accompany him on the highway, but in general the sessions are enough.“The therapy is considered positive if the patient no longer avoids the problematic situation. For some people the fear will disappear, for others an apprehension remains, which can also be specifically addressed during the session through modules aimed at learning to anticipate less, adopting the most appropriate posture, even in the face of fear, in order to be able to its better to listen to yourself to stay in touch with your emotions. So to welcome and accept them.

Leave a Comment