Alex beat his phobia with just a psychologist and a VR headset.
ALEX WOOD’S blood and needle phobia went from being a source of anxiety to life-threatening after he contracted pre-diabetes in university.
With skyrocketing blood sugar and hypoglycaemia levels, Alex was forced to confront his bloodcurdling phobia, sitting through what he describes as “constant” blood tests.
“[Blood and needles] are definitely something that I find extremely uncomfortable. It’s exacerbated by when I had really serious problems with my blood sugar and hypoglycaemia levels as a university student. They used to say ‘look around the corner, look who’s here’ and I’d turn around and they’d jab the needle in quickly. They tried every trick possible to try and get me through it,” Alex says.
For those afraid of blood and needles, fainting, dizziness and avoiding doctor appointments are all too common. Alex says that while the blood tests saved his life, helping him beat his pre-diabetes, they also exacerbated his phobia.
As a London-based tech journalist, Alex was drawn to virtual reality as a “quick” and “easy” means to overcome his phobia. Like exposure therapy, virtual reality therapy means gradually exposing a patient to what they fear.
But instead of having to confront your fears face-to-face, you can do it with just a psychologist and a VR headset.
In Alex’s virtual reality therapy session he watched 360-degree videos of what he’d consider to be anxiety scenarios. The psychologist taught him relaxation techniques to deal with his phobia and measured his pulse and heart rate. Increasing with intensity with each session, the videos first showed Alex sitting in a doctors’ waiting room — something that he finds extremely stressful. Later he was shown videos of himself getting injections and blood tests.
Before virtual reality therapy, Alex couldn’t stand watching gory horror films and hospital dramas. In his high school, his phobia meant taking a convenient ‘sick day’ when injection day rolled around. But after just one session he describes the therapy as “game-changing”, making an “astounding” difference to his phobia.
Blood and needle phobias aren’t the only phobia capable of being treated by virtual reality. The possibilities are endless, with VR treatments ranging from fears of flying to medical and animal phobias, and even treating fears of cotton balls and garden gnomes. Currently in Australia about one in 10 people have a phobia. In the United States around 23 million people have a phobia — roughly the size of Australia’s population.
A phobia differs from a regular fear as it encompasses a change in behaviour, including avoiding the phobic situation, says Brenda Wiederhold, a psychologist at the Virtual Reality Medical Centre in California. Virtual reality in recent years has become an increasingly popular alternative to hypnosis and traditional therapy. Dr Wiederhold says that in her clinic VR therapy has a 92 per cent success rate and on average patients take 10 sessions to cure their fears.
Dr Wiederhold emphasises that these phobias can be extremely debilitating for patients, intruding upon the normalcy of their everyday lives. This includes costing them jobs and sometimes even forcing them to move home.
Virtual reality therapy has slowly but surely made its way to Australian shores. Currently, Sydney Phobia Clinic is the only clinic in Australia offering virtual reality therapy. This city-based clinic is where Kevin McAuley conquered his needle phobia.
Like Alex, the 32-year-old entrepreneur had suffered an intense fear of needles from a young age, but with a vague idea of how his fear had come about. Through therapy sessions and using virtual reality, Kevin is now able to get injections and blood tests, something that he had once avoided at all costs.
“Before therapy, even people talking about injections or blood tests, I would literally have to say ‘stop’. Any time I would go to the doctor and get an injection I’d faint. I would feel sick, dizzy and hot and then next thing I’d be lying on the floor and people would be waking me up,” Kevin says.
Kevin McAuley conquered his needle phobia with VRSource:Supplied
Kevin’s phobia came to a head when he started a new job and one of his first clients was Red Cross Blood Donations — a nightmarish situation for someone with a needle phobia.
“As soon as they said it I just knew I couldn’t handle it. My mind ran away with itself and just the thought of it, I ended up fainting on the first day of the job,” Kevin says.
“Needle and blood phobias have this element that other phobias don’t have, where you faint, like a fight-or-flight response. All the blood is leaving your head so that you can run away but we’re not on African plains, there’s not a lion and your body recalibrates,” he says.
One benefit of VR is that it enables patients to practice the relaxation techniques they’ve learned in therapy before facing a real-world phobic scenario. In real-life exposure therapy, Kevin and Alex may have cancelled dozens of doctors’ appointments due to intense fear. But with virtual reality they were able to gain confidence through practising with a psychologist and a VR headset.
And with the advent of VR, psychologists are curing phobias that were previously impossible to treat with exposure therapy. This is because, as Dr Wiederhold explains, some phobic situations are difficult for psychologists to recreate, such as a fear of heights, storms, or flying. But even so, a hefty price tag stands in the way of VR therapy becoming common use for medical professionals and consumers.
Currently researchers around the country are working hard to reverse the high expenses of VR technology. One researcher at the University of New South Wales Jill Newby is developing technology to make VR more affordable, at the cost of just a $20 headset.
“One of the things I’m working on is using virtual reality but in a really cheap, accessible way. I have taken 360 degree photos, where I can go into a free app on my phone and view the photo using a virtual headset. This headset only costs $20, so it’s really cheap. Anyone could use this in their own homes to help them overcome their fears,” Dr Newby says.
And in the end, helping people with life-threatening phobias overcome their fears is what makes the job worthwhile for psychologists like Dr Newby and Dr Wiederhold.
“I get post cards from people who are going on a flight, or going to a graduation they didn’t think they could attend. One gentleman had a fear of driving around cliffs and he went on a holiday in Italy with his wife after he did the treatment. It’s very rewarding to have people’s lives changed by these things,” Dr Wiederhold says.