ATLANTA -- For many people, the mere thought of public speaking makes their palms sweat, heart race and stomach reel. But help may be on the way in the form of virtual reality exposure therapy -- computer-generated images and sound delivered through a helmet-like headset. Page Anderson, an assistant professor of psychology at Georgia State University, is beginning a clinical study later this month to determine how effective the technology is in allaying the fear and anxiety that often accompany public speaking.
Using a virtual audience, Anderson's study will compare the efficacy of VRE therapy versus another type of cognitive behavioral therapy to treat public-speaking anxiety. She says this study will mark one of the first attempts using VRE therapy to treat an interpersonal fear. Traditionally, those seeking help to overcome phobias undergo "exposure therapy" -- the idea that patients face their fears to beat them. For such therapy to work, the degree of exposure needs to be controlled and prolonged to give anxiety time to subside, then be repeated, Anderson says.
"All of that's difficult to do," she says. "So I'm examining whether facing one's fears in the virtual world allows one to conquer them in the real world."
Virtual reality has been used in research settings to treat many phobias, including fear of flying and heights. Anderson tries to immerse people in the virtual environment by including as many senses as possible. "You see the virtual environment, you hear the virtual environment. Sometimes you can feel aspects of the virtual environment," she says.
Those interested in participating in Anderson's study may call 404/463-9657 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. This study is sponsored by the National Institutes of Mental Health.
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