Now on the NHS… the virtual reality headset that could end the misery of agoraphobia

People with agoraphobia are being offered virtual reality (VR) therapy on the NHS to help them overcome their fear of leaving the house.

The treatment, which involves wearing special headphones, allows patients to experience everyday situations that make them anxious, such as being in a coffee shop or the supermarket, from the comfort of their own home.

Lifelike 3D images appear in front of the user, giving them the feeling of really being there. And during the experience, a virtual therapist offers techniques aimed at helping the patient overcome their difficulties.

Research has shown that exposure to these scenarios in a safe environment helps reduce anxiety, and NHS watchdogs have approved the breakthrough treatment for wider use by doctors.

Virtual reality (VR) therapy can help people with psychosis who are afraid to leave their home

Although VR has been used in healthcare for decades, this is the first time that medical professionals can prove its health benefits

Although VR has been used in healthcare for decades, this is the first time that medical professionals can prove its health benefits

Lifelike 3D images appear in front of the user, giving them the feeling of being there (stock image)

Lifelike 3D images appear in front of the user, giving them the feeling of being there (stock image)

Around two in 100 people in Britain have panic disorder – the most extreme form of anxiety, characterized by panic attacks – while a third of people who suffer from it also suffer from agoraphobia, an irrational fear of being in public places . Patients associate their panic attacks with places or situations where they occurred and then avoid those situations.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) proposed the VR technology, called gameChange, after a major study found it even helped people with severe forms of agoraphobia.

Although VR has been used in healthcare for decades, this is the first time that medical professionals can prove its health benefits.

The study involved 346 patients with schizophrenia or psychotic symptoms who had reported difficulty going outside due to anxiety. Half were offered six sessions of gameChange therapy, while the others received standard psychotherapy.

At the end of the treatment period, the VR group was significantly less anxious and upset in social situations, and the results were similar when the patients were reassessed after six months. Scientists say the approach allows patients to build self-confidence and ease their fears, allowing them to complete tasks in real life that they had previously avoided.

GameChange was developed by Daniel Freeman, professor of psychology at the University of Oxford, who said: ‘VR has extraordinary potential to help people overcome mental health problems, by helping people learn to think, feel and behave in better ways. Simulations allow people to try things they wouldn’t be good at in real life. They can then apply what they have learned in the real world.

“If you get over something in VR, you’ll get over it in real life.”

Professor Freeman believes gameChange could effectively replace standard therapy. β€œVR has been used to treat mental health issues for almost 30 years, but it has always only been a tool for a therapist,” he said.

Although VR simulations could place a patient in a scenario, guidance had to be provided by a trained psychologist. This meant that access to technological treatment was limited.

Professor Freeman said: ‘There are too few skilled therapists to meet the high demand, meaning too many people are waiting for the right help.’

Although VR simulations could place a patient in a scenario, guidance had to be provided by a trained psychologist

Although VR simulations could place a patient in a scenario, guidance had to be provided by a trained psychologist

At the end of the treatment period, the VR group was significantly less anxious and upset in social situations

At the end of the treatment period, the VR group was significantly less anxious and upset in social situations

Around two in 100 people in Britain have panic disorder – the most extreme form of anxiety, characterized by panic attacks (stock image)

Around two in 100 people in Britain have panic disorder – the most extreme form of anxiety, characterized by panic attacks (stock image)

Because gameChange offers a virtual therapist, patients only need the Β£300 headset and instructions on how to use it. ‘This means millions more people could receive the very best psychological treatments for agoraphobia,’ Professor Freeman added.

The NICE approval also covered two other VR therapies. Both treat agoraphobia and fears such as arachnophobia (fear of spiders) and claustrophobia (fear of tight spaces).

If someone with agoraphobia is in a stressful situation, this will usually trigger a panic attack. Symptoms include a pounding or fast heartbeat, feeling faint, dizzy or lightheaded, sweating, shaking or trembling, and nausea.

Some patients experience chest or abdominal pain and difficulty breathing. This is the result of an abnormal, irrational fear response that causes a rise in certain hormones that cause the physical symptoms.

Often these abnormal or irrational fears become ingrained as a result of a traumatic event.

By addressing the anxiety – through forms of psychotherapy – and helping patients realize that there is no danger in everyday situations, the condition can be treated.

One patient revealed that before using gameChange, he had difficulty taking the bus to visit his father’s grave. β€œIt was heartbreaking,” he said. ‘I’ve missed a lot. I couldn’t go out to visit friends and family.

β€œThe biggest thing for me was visiting my father’s grave because in my mind I couldn’t physically get on the bus to get there.”

However, thanks to the VR treatment, he feels more confident.

β€œGameChange therapy changed my life,” he said. β€œI was able to get on the bus and put flowers on my father’s grave, spend some time there and catch the bus back. I have more confidence in myself and in dealing with other people.’