How Augmented Reality Helps Patients Overcome Phobias

With augmented reality, patients can overcome phobias at the doctor’s office — no spiders required.
Illustration by James Wang

Psychiatrists have found that one of the most effective ways of treating patients with phobias is to expose them to the very thing they are afraid of. Exposure therapy, as it’s called, is unique in that in order to help someone who is afraid of snakes, for example, you’d have to bring a live snake into the office.

Dr. Arash Javanbakht, director of the Stress, Trauma, and Anxiety Research Clinic (or STARC) at Wayne State University, started a project about seven years ago to work around bringing reptiles into the office. The project sought to help people confront their fears through a new type of exposure therapy, conducted solely through augmented reality, or AR.

This study aimed to help patients with phobias confront their instinctual fears by creating technology that could insert lifelike visuals of what they feared into their environment. Patients can put on a headset and see the same room they saw before, just with the addition of their fears — in the case of this study, spiders.

To accurately measure patients’ progress, STARC brought in a live tarantula, aptly named Tony STARC. Before beginning the AR exposure therapy, Javanbakht’s team would note how close the patient could get to Tony STARC’s tank. After an exposure therapy session of only an hour or less, they found that all patients were able to touch either the tarantula or the tank containing it. This change occurred because as patients see what they fear while not being harmed, they can train their bodies to realize that their fears are only, well, fears.

Past experiments have tested exposure therapy using virtual reality, but Javanbakht says augmented reality creates significantly better results. With virtual reality, a person is inserted into a digital environment, whereas augmented reality inserts something digital into the observer’s real surroundings, making the therapy feel more real. So even though the experience isn’t real — and patients know it — their body’s instinctual fear response is.

Preliminary studies like this show how augmented reality is revolutionizing the way exposure therapy is conducted, and not just for spiders. New, similar projects are in the works to help people with obsessive compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. The goal is to one day implement this type of AR technology in a clinical setting.

As Javanbakht says, “This could definitely be a big part of the future of the psychiatric field.”

This story is from the Moving Medicine Forward feature in the October 2022 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.