Virtual reality may soon help your overcome your fear of spiders

Arachnophobia could soon be a thing of the past thanks to VR-assisted exposure therapy. — AFP

Arachnophobia could soon be a thing of the past thanks to VR-assisted exposure therapy. — AFP

Scientists and technicians are working on a high-tech cure for the age-old fear of spiders. The idea is to make exposure therapy simpler by using virtual reality eliminating the need for actual spiders to confront patients with. 

"Sometimes we've had to cancel appointments because we didn't have any spiders at hand," says Tanja Michael, a professor of clinical psychology and psychotherapy at Germany's Saarland University. 

Michael and her team have treated more than 40 people suffering from an abnormal fear of spiders – arachnophobia – at the university hospital's psychotherapy clinic. Arachnophobia is regarded as the anxiety disorder that's easiest to treat. 

"Our therapy is successful for more than 99% of our patients," Michael said.  

Exposure therapy at the the clinic proceeds in three stages. First patients are asked to capture a spider with a glass, then prod one in a terrarium with a pencil and then their finger, and finally allow one to crawl over their hand. 

"It's a matter of dealing with the anxiety and controlling it," Michael says. While a lot of people experience at least a twinge of fear when they encounter a spider, an estimated 5% of women and 1% of men have a full-blown phobia that can result in panic attacks and mortal terror. Symptoms may include heart palpitations, rapid breathing and the inability to think clearly.  

"For many of these people, their quality of life is significantly impaired," Michael says. They may refuse to enter unfamiliar rooms or garages, avoid visiting friends in the countryside and only call on residents of flats on upper storeys, where spiders are less likely to be. 

Despite its proven effectiveness, exposure therapy is shunned by many licensed psychotherapists because it's rather difficult to integrate into a normal practice – after all, eight-legged assistants are required. 

Addressing this problem is a new research project that Michael and her team are working on with Saarland University Hospital, the Fraunhofer Institute for Biomedical Engineering and digital games specialist Promotion Software. It aims to transpose exposure therapy to the realm of virtual reality, for example with head-mounted displays used either at a psychotherapy practice or alone at home. 

"This would greatly increase the number of people who can be helped," remarks Michael, who says younger people normally reluctant to see a psychologist could be attracted by the high-tech component, especially if "cool, gaming aspects" are added. 

Saarland University psychology student Sarah Schaefer, whose doctoral dissertation is devoted to the project, notes that "60% [of arachnophobia sufferers] remain untreated, although they suffer greatly and their disorder is easily treatable." 

"There are good reasons to be optimistic," Michael says of virtual-reality therapies. "With this new technology, perhaps we can also increase the success rate for more complicated anxiety disorders that have so far been harder to treat." — dpa