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A virtual reality app may help conquer your fear of heights

virtual reality fear heights

Advanced level of the virtual reality app. (Image: Bentz et al., NPJ Digital Medicine 2021)

Suffering from a fear of heights? Virtual reality may help, according to experts from the University of Basel. The team developed a VR app for smartphones aimed at reducing the fear of heights. In their report, published in NPJ Digital Medicine, the team tested the app by allowing participants to train using the app. After using the app, the participants showed an improvement in their ability to handle real height situations.

“Our results indicate that the repeated use of a smartphone-based, stand-alone virtual reality exposure app leads to large improvements in avoidance behavior and subjective fear of heights both in a clinical and subclinical population,” the team concluded. “Low costs of the necessary setup and easy accessibility of the app qualify it as a useful addition to the current mental health care services as well as a self-help option for people with subclinical fear of heights.”

Fear of heights is common—and debilitating

It’s not unusual for a person to feel dizzy or nervous when looking down from high places. But it becomes acrophobia—the medical term for the irrational fear of heights—when the thought of heights makes you nauseous to the point of avoiding these places altogether. Experts say that at least 5% of the general population have a fear of heights, making it one of the most common phobias.

Despite its prevalence, people with this phobia are reluctant to confront their fear of heights. Therapists also face challenges in dealing with acrophobia, as they’re unable to reproduce the right kinds of height situations in a clinical setting. These factors drove the team to develop the VR exposure therapy app Easyheights.

In the virtual reality app, users gradually rise to greater heights and can indicate the degree of their fear at each level. (Image: Bentz et al., NPJ Digital Medicine 2021)

The app, which uses a special VR headset, just needs to be downloaded to a smartphone to run. During the virtual experience, the user stands at a platform in the middle of a real location, which the developers captured using a drone. The platform, which starts one meter above the ground, automatically rises. In essence, this allows the person to experience a perceived distance without an increase in his fear.

To test the app, the team enrolled 50 participants with a fear of heights in a two-week training program using Easyheights. After the training phase, the participants were brought to a lookout tower, where they were asked about their subjective fear level at each level of the tower. Those who completed the training program showed less fear of the tower, even climbing higher than those who didn’t complete the program. (Read: Apple reportedly working on VR headset)

Given the results, the researchers were positive that smartphone-based VR therapy can improve a person’s behavior and well-being in height situations.

“What is new, however, is that smartphones can be used to produce the virtual scenarios that previously required a technically complicated type of treatment, and this makes it much more accessible,” explained lead author Dorothée Bentz.

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