Virtual Reality and the Treatment of Driving Phobia — Part 1

Exposure therapy is intended to “retrain your brain to stop sending the fear signal when there isn’t any danger.” People who suffer from anxiety disorders such as phobias have developed an abnormally strong response to a certain stimulus. The anxiety can be triggered by the sight of a spider, the thought of speaking in front of a crowd, or some other highly unpleasant situation or object. Healthy individuals may feel anxious when presented with the same stimulus, but their reaction is mild compared to that of someone with a phobia.

Driving phobia, naturally, is the fear of driving. Many people experience a degree of anxiety while on the road, especially under certain conditions. Fears of driving over bridges, driving at night, and driving next to a large vehicle are all somewhat common in the general population.

As previously mentioned, what distinguishes a phobia from mild anxiety are the physiological reactions and the impact on quality of life.

According to MedicineNet, a person faced with an intensely feared object will likely display the following signs:

  • shaking
  • sweating
  • trouble thinking clearly
  • nausea
  • rapid heart beat
  • trouble breathing

“An overwhelming desire to escape the situation” and taking “extreme measures…to avoid or escape the situation” are also characteristic of having a phobia. For a person who is deathly afraid of driving, a driver’s license may be obtained at a much older age. Some people with driving phobia will never get their license at all, and this can severely limit their ability to travel, socialize, and maintain a steady job.

Treating a Phobia

So, how does one get treated for a phobia? Physicians and mental health workers will often recommend therapy, sometimes with anti-anxiety medications. The favored form of therapy for treating a person with a phobia is exposure therapy.

What bothers people about exposure therapy is that it is difficult. One has to truly want to overcome one’s fear and be willing to put in the effort. Exposure therapy is not for those who are not fully committed to conquering their anxiety.

Virtual Exposure

Exposure therapy has been affected by the increasing presence of technology. Specialists have started to use virtual simulation to expose and desensitize phobic persons to their fear.

Driving-based virtual reality games have been around for years, but can they really help someone to recover from driving phobia?

In a follow-up piece on virtual reality and driving phobia treatment, the results from a case report on the topic will be discussed.