Virtual Reality Therapy for Driving Anxiety Offers Hope
Many of us take for granted that we can just hop in our cars and go to whatever destination is on our agenda. However, for people with driving anxiety, getting from here to there can be a monumental task.
While some people develop driving phobias as a result of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, others are fearful due to an accident or other traumatic event experienced while driving. In this case, driving anxiety may be a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
What is Driving Anxiety
Individuals with driving anxiety may experience one or more of the following symptoms when behind the steering wheel of a vehicle:
- Feelings of “losing control”
- Pounding heart
- Over-reactive fear
- “Surreal” feeling
Some people have a general fear of driving while others get fearful when they travel someplace unfamiliar. Still others get anxious while driving in the rain, snow, or even at night. Regardless, symptoms can range from mild worry to full-blown panic attacks.
Individuals with a driving phobia may be paralyzed with fear due to catastrophic thinking. These thoughts may keep them safe at home, far away from the driver’s seat. Still, others continue to drive, distracted by their fears and physical reactions to those fears. Individuals who focus on catastrophic thinking may, for example, transform a simple thought – such as driving on wet roads – into irrational fears. (e.g. The roads are wet tonight, which will cause my car to hydroplane. Then, I’ll run into the car in front of me, causing that car to swerve out of control. Then, there will be a multi-car pile-up due to slick conditions on the roads….)
The good news is that there is a viable treatment: virtual reality therapy (VRT). According to the Virtual Reality Medical Center in San Diego California, “Virtual reality exposure therapy places the client in a computer-generated world where they ‘experience’ the various stimuli related to their phobia. The client wears a head-mounted display with small TV monitors and stereo earphones to receive both visual and auditory cues.”
Virtual Reality Therapy for Driving Anxiety
Virtual Reality Therapy uses gradual exposure to help individuals overcome their fear of driving. The idea is to recreate an environment that provokes anxiety in an individual – using virtual reality – and immerse that individual in that scenario as a means of decreasing symptoms of anxiety over time. VRT has produced positive outcomes in individuals suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and anxiety disorders exacerbated by situations such as driving.
The advantage of using virtual reality as a means for immersion therapy is that the individual – and others around them – are never in any real danger. Many psychologists tout the benefits of using virtual reality therapy for anxious drivers, while others believe that VRT is not “real enough” to produce any significant success.
Here’s how it works: An individual will meet with a psychologist to determine the origin of their driving fears; this could take several sessions. Once the psychologist and the client have a broad-based understanding of the individual’s anxiety to this specific scenario, the patient is placed in a virtual reality setting designed to simulate the driving experience.
A headset with sensors is attached to a computer, picking up any movements. The computer and platform act to simulate the physical environment that the patient would ordinarily encounter in a driving situation. The patient also wears earphones that play sounds that are typical to the particular driving situation simulated.
The patient is initially introduced to a situation that is less fearful and gradually introduced to simulated situations that cause anxiety – or panic – to arise. Once the patient feels panic, he is habituated into that environment. In other words, he cannot leave until the anxiety lessens or dissipates altogether. The psychologist has complete control over the scenario and may choose to expose the patient in manageable bits or take “baby steps” through the immersion process.
Prognosis for Recovery
The jury is still out on the prognosis. Some psychologists are doubtful because the situation, although quite similar, is not real. However, for patients with driving anxiety, the virtual reality experience is “real enough” to promote feelings of anxiety during the experience. As with any type of therapy, some individuals experience results while others are not as receptive to a positive outcome.
Before embarking on VRT to cure your driving anxiety, consider the cost. Psychologists suggest up to eight one-hour sessions, which may cost up to $300 an hour. The idea is to lessen the patient’s fear response and to gradually expose them to driving in the “real world.” Because many patients are more receptive to exposure therapy when it’s presented virtually, this is a viable option for many patients who would otherwise refuse immersion therapy behind the wheel of a car.
Treating driving anxiety with virtual reality therapy may not be a viable option for every patient, but it is certainly worth investigating if you or a loved one suffers from a driving phobia. You’ll want to weigh the advantages, the disadvantages, and the costs involved to participate in VRT and find a therapist who specializes in using total immersion therapy with VRT.
Click Here to Learn More About the Driving Fear Program and How it Can Help You Overcome Your Fear or Anxiety While Driving