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Paranoia patients cured by facing their fears in virtual reality

Take a moment to envision yourself in the most stressful situation you can imagine. For some, this might mean surrounded by spiders. For others, stress comes from standing naked in front of an audience, attempting to give an impromptu presentation. The old adage about facing one’s fear — not just imagining, but seeking and confronting stressful scenarios — has helped many people overcome their phobias. Though this tactic may work, it’s sometimes painful, often impractical, and almost always discomforting.

Researchers at Oxford University have developed a new way for people to confront their stresses — in virtual reality. Focusing on patients who suffer from persecutory delusions, a severe form of paranoia, the team immersed 30 subjects into a virtual reality and asked them to confront the program’s (admittedly unnerving) avatars in various ways. One group was asked to cope as usual, such as by dropping their head and keeping a relative distance from the avatars. The other group was asked to throw caution to the wind, approach the avatars, and confront them with a firm gaze.

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After just a half-hour session, 50 percent of the second group said they were cured of severe paranoia. “The benefits transferred over to the real world,” said Professor Daniel Freeman. “Later on, when patients went into real social situations, they felt less stressed.” Surprisingly, some subjects from the first group — who used their usual coping mechanisms — also improved, with 20 percent showing decreased paranoia. Their study was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry

Severe paranoia can be debilitating for its sufferers, making it difficult to function or even go out in public. Restaurants, trains, and airports can become terrifying places. The study allowed patients to face their stresses within the safety of a laboratory and virtual reality. Freeman acknowledges that this short-term study wasn’t definite, but it did show some of the potential for virtual reality in mental health therapy.