Digital Medicine & Wearable Technology
Author: Aaron Ahdoot
Status: Project Concept
Treating Social Anxiety Through a Virtual Reality World
Social anxiety, which is the third largest psychological disorder in the US, can often lead to increased self-consciousness, avoidance, feelings of inadequacy, embarrassment, and ultimately depression. Moreover, social anxiety is often prevalent among those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Asperger’s Syndrome. As many as 80% of those with Asperger’s suffer from intense anxiety disorder while social anxiety was diagnosed in 25% of those with ASD. In these cases, social anxiety is just another challenge to overcome among others in order for them to learn how to communicate effectively. The treatment being used today is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which uses graded exposure and focuses on changing maladaptive thinking as it can lead to a change in maladaptive behavior. However, oftentimes CBT can be very verbally based and quite abstract. Moree and Davis (2010) found that incorporating more concrete visuals and child-specific interests are extremely important in order to help them overcome their anxiety and effectively communicate with confidence.
An application of the Facebook Spaces Virtual Reality system personalized for those that deal with social anxiety to provide a more interactive, visual mode of therapy. Using this system, children would create their own comprehensive profile (such as a facebook profile that includes pictures etc., but a facebook profile isn’t required) and use that information to create an avatar of themself. This program would include a group of other avatars (that are portrayed as potential friends) that the user can socialize with in order to build confidence. Through the use of this VR system, the user can communicate in a variety of ways: they can show others photos/videos, draw 3D objects to express their creativity, and capture the moment with selfies (with avatars), therefore teaching them how to build their own social network. Additionally, the VR system will recognize signals from the child’s head and hand position to show emotions on the avatar, which will allow the user to learn how to express their own emotions as well. The child will make a list of situations in which he/she is anxious in and the program will be customized to portray the user in each situation, increasing the number of situations the user is placed in slowly over time as he/she develops mastery. The program’s effectiveness will be measured by subsequently placing the child in each of these situations after he/she has been exposed to the situation over VR and evaluating their performance and anxiety levels. Eventually, it will allow them to visualize themselves in social situations and through these means, learn how to effectively communicate and overcome most of the anxiety that comes with being in social situations.
Those that suffer from social anxiety will be able to take advantage of one of the benefits of a VR system: its ability to portray seemingly real-life visuals in a virtual world. The world of virtual reality allows these children to think that they are in their own safe space, therefore diminishing their own anxiety from the start. This program would act as a mode of exposure therapy that would go hand-in-hand with CBT. Through repeated exposures, those that deal with social anxiety will feel an increased sense of control over the situation and their anxiety will ebb. Ultimately, this program will incorporate the much-needed visual components as well as a playful aspect geared towards children, both of which were lacking in traditional CBT and will teach these children to effectively communicate with confidence.
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