Virtual reality could help paranoid people conquer their fears


People who suffer from paranoia can overcome their fears using virtual reality, new research has found.

Virtual reality simulations can help people to face their fears and see that situations they worry about are actually safe, researchers from Oxford University said.

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The study, funded by the Medical Research Council, combined psychological treatment techniques with state-of-the-art virtual reality social situations to reduce paranoid fear.

People who suffer from severe paranoia can show an extreme mistrust of other people, believing that others are deliberately trying to harm them.

Many use defensive behaviours such as avoiding social situations or reducing eye contact, but these tactics can reinforce fears because patients believe they avoided harm by using these coping mechanisms.

The study aimed to assess whether patients could learn that a situation was safe without using these tactics.

A young man suffering from paranoia

Thirty patients took part in the study and experienced virtual reality simulations, one simulated being in a lift and another on the Tube, with increasing numbers of computer avatars.

One group were encouraged to use their normal defensive behaviours in these situations.

The other group were told to drop their defences by approaching the computer characters and holding long stares or standing toe-to-toe with the avatars.

The research team, led by Professor Daniel Freeman from Oxford University's Department of Psychiatry, found that the second group showed significant reductions in their paranoid delusions - more than 50% of these patients no longer had severe paranoia at the end of the testing day.

"Paranoia all too often leads to isolation, unhappiness, and profound distress. But the exceptionally positive immediate results for the patients in this study show a new route forward in treatment," said Prof Freeman.

"In just a 30-minute session, those who used the right psychological techniques showed major reductions in paranoia.

A young man on Mind website

"It's not easy work for patients, since lowering defences takes courage. But as they relearned that being around other people was safe we saw their paranoia begin to melt away. They were then able to go into real social situations and cope far better. This has the potential to be transformative."

Prof David Clark, a member of the study team, added: "There is growing evidence that psychological treatments can have a major beneficial impact on the lives of people suffering from psychosis.

"Virtual reality assisted treatment has great potential because, as the price of the equipment makes it more accessible, much treatment could be delivered in people's homes."