Health: A Virtual Cure for Invisible Fears ; for Those Suffering from Social Phobia, Everyday Life Can Become an Exhausting Ordeal. Roger Dobson Asks Whether New Treatments That Make Use of Video and Computer Technology Could Offer a Solution
Dobson, Roger, The Independent (London, England)
IT HAS ruined lives, destroyed careers, wrecked relationships, and even driven sufferers to suicide. Fear of public speaking can affect just about anyone, from children giving presentations at school, to company directors. New research shows that eight out of 10 company directors in Britain fear speaking in public more than any other business activity.
Now British doctors have developed a new therapy for a condition that is estimated to affect the lives of more than two million people in Britain. The treatment, which includes sessions of talking to audiences who get bored, talk, scratch, read and fall asleep, has been designed to help sufferers overcome their fear of dealing with other people.
Fear of public speaking is a social phobia, and sufferers can experience sweating, heart palpitations, chest tightening, tremor, loss of balance and nausea at even the thought of public speaking. Sufferers may be physically sick before speaking, while those who appear confident are often using anti-anxiety medication.
Doctors pioneering the treatment at the Institute of Psychiatry in London are using virtual reality to expose sufferers to the reactions of different types of virtual audience, created by a computer. Some of the audiences are attentive, others restless, and a few are hostile. Patients are recorded on video during the exposure so that they can observe their own reactions.
While virtual reality has been used to treat a number of phobias, including fears of heights and spiders, no one until now has used this method to try to cure social phobia. The therapy is one of a new range of treatments being offered by the country's biggest and newest NHS research and treatment centre for anxiety.
It is estimated that as many as one in 10 people suffer with anxiety problems, including panic attacks, social phobia, obsessive compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress syndrome. But despite the large numbers of sufferers, few receive treatment, with only five per cent of people suffering social phobia seeking help.
The new centre at the Institute of Psychiatry in London has been set up to improve the treatments available and to increase the number of NHS patients getting help. It is also pioneering short, two- and three- day intensive treatments as an alternative to the traditional once-a-week therapy that can take months, or even years.
"We think that about one in 10 people will have an anxiety disorder at some time in their lives, and that means a condition that interferes with their everyday life. …