You can now work on losing your fear of heights with a smartphone, a pair of cheap VR glasses and an app developed in the Netherlands.

Fear of heights in itself can be quite debilitating, and also increase the risk of other anxiety disorders and depression. Although those looking to get rid of such a phobia have not been able to rely on health insurers to reimburse their therapies since 2014, new research in the Netherlands indicates that help is at hand thanks to a virtual reality app (VR) for smartphones.

Cardboard glasses

The app, called ZeroPhobia, is the brainchild of psychologist Tara Donker (VU Amsterdam) and social psychologist and VR expert Jean-Louis van Gelder (University of Twente). In common with most conventional treatments, the app exposes its user to his or her fear, so he or she can learn how to control it.

Users running ZeroPhobia on a smartphone put on cheap cardboard or plastic VR glasses, such as Google Cardboard, to expose themselves to virtual situations where fear of heights can arise, such as climbing a high ladder.

The VR situations in ZeroPhobia that are intended to provoke fear of heights in users take place in and around a theatre.

Fewer symptoms

Previous research has already shown that exposure to fears through VR works just as well as exposure to the real thing. The new study, published last week in the scientific journal JAMA Psychiatry, goes one step further. For the first time, it shows that VR therapy also works if people treat themselves independently at home with their own smartphones, instead of in the presence of a therapist with expensive VR equipment.

Donker, Van Gelder and colleagues proceeded by first randomly dividing 193 test subjects suffering from fear of heights into two groups. The test subjects in one group used the app for three weeks, while the other group did nothing. At the end as well as three months later, questionnaires completed by all the test subjects indicated that those who had used the app had significantly fewer symptoms of fear of heights than those in the other group.

Fear of flying

What’s more, treatment with the app turned out to be about as effective as treatment in the presence of a therapist with high-end VR equipment, and just as good as or even better than treatment without VR. 'Even with the effectiveness estimate being on the low side, because some of the test subjects couldn’t use the app on their smartphones but were included in the analysis,' adds Donker.

Not only does ZeroPhobia present VR situations, users can also record negative thoughts they have when thinking about heights, as well as positive thoughts that can neutralise them.

ZeroPhobia is available for Android (5.1 Lollipop or higher) and iPhone or iPad (iOS 9.0 or higher). Donker and Van Gelder are now working on a new version to combat fear of flying.

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