I Tried Using VR to Cure My Crippling Fear of Spiders

"A tank appeared on the table with a spider inside. It was black with a red stripe down its back. Pieter assured me it wasn't dangerous, but I felt very, very uncomfortable."

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29 November 2016, 11:49pm

Me wearing a headset. All photos by the author, even if the author clearly didn't take this one.

Spiders have always irked me, which is a bit of a problem in Sydney because the funnel-web—aka the most dangerous spider in the world—lives here. Then the issue came to a head a couple of weeks back when I opened my door to find a huge spider on the wall. I panicked. My heart started racing and I couldn't go in. Another drink at the local suddenly seemed like a great idea. But later, perched on my barstool, I had to admit I had a problem.

Arachnophobia is the extreme fear of spiders. A person who suffers the condition can be so afraid of these eight-legged invertebrates that they alter their lives to avoid them. The phobia is quite common—around five percent of Australians experience it. A less intense fear of spiders affects an estimated 50 percent of women and 30 percent of men.

A new type of therapy involves using virtual reality (VR) to help people conquer their fears. According to Corrie Ackland, the clinical director at Sydney Phobia Clinic, it's a form of exposure therapy, the key technique to treat phobias. "What that's doing is gradually increasing exposure to the otherwise feared or avoided situation," she explained, adding that as the exposure increases, a patient learns that their "anxiety goes down and they can cope."

For some phobias, it's hard to get a lot of actual exposure time. Take a fear of flying—spending prolonged periods of time in the air could get expensive fast. That's where VR exposure therapy comes in. It allows staff at the clinic to recreate "difficult to access" scenarios in a realistic manner. According to Ackland, research indicates that VR therapy is just as effective as the real thing. However, the primary aim of the treatment is to get that real life exposure. "Our course has in situ exposure packaged in as the last session and virtual reality is a precursor to that," she told me.

A course usually runs for five sessions and combines cognitive behavioural therapies with the exposure time. The clinic deals with a wide range of phobias from social anxiety to claustrophobia, and even emetophobia—the fear of vomiting. A phobia is an irrational marked fear of something, and the anxiety produced is often out of proportion with the real threat that's posed by a situation. Around six to 12 percent of all people suffer from phobias. And they're one of the most undertreated mental health issues in the world.

Pieter Rossouw, clinic manager

So I paid a visit to the clinic to experience VR therapy for myself. First up, I met Pieter Rossouw, clinic manager, who explained to me that I was jumping in at the deep end. I was missing the "initial management strategy sessions" where a patient like me would usually just begin by looking at images of spiders. "Depending on how extreme you are you might even start off with just the word spider written on a piece of paper," Rossouw said. "We'll see how you go."

He pulled out the machinery: GearVR goggles and a Samsung Galaxy S7. "When you put it on you get that feeling that you're actually there and that means you get that anxiety response," Rossouw told me. I strapped the goggles on, Pieter slotted the phone in, and told me I was about to enter another world.

The view from within the goggles. Of course, these two images conjoin to create one 3D image.

There I was in a very different room, seated at a wooden table. It was the first time I'd ever been in VR and, to be honest, it was a little freaky. Seated across from me, Pieter was controlling everything from his laptop. A tank appeared on the table with a spider inside. It was black with a red stripe down its back. Pieter assured me it wasn't dangerous, but it looked like a redback spider to me and they can kill. I felt very, very uncomfortable.

While Pieter controlled the spider, I tried batting it. Very Black Mirror

Pieter asked me on a scale of one to 10 how much anxiety I felt. "Five," I replied. Then he swung the tank over right in front of me, and an eight was coming on. Finally, the tank disappeared, the spider was crawling around on the table and I wanted out. Relief came as Pieter told me to take the goggles off. He thought I might get motion sickness, given it was my first time in VR.

We moved onto an augmented reality spider. A piece of paper with a pattern printed on it was placed on the table. When the phone was waved across it, a spider appeared on the screen. Then I placed my hand above the pattern and the spider looked as though it was crawling across my fingers. The bizarre thing was that as I watched this small spider, I actually had the sensation of its legs on my fingertips. With a push of a button, I had five of them running over my palm. And to top it off, Pieter made a great brown spider appear, which reminded me of that very one in my room.

The boss level: hold the spider

Pieter explained that in a regular course, after the VR exposure, they'd get in a spider tamer. An orb weaver spider would be let loose running over my arms. Finally a huge, but rather placid, huntsman would spend some time sitting on my palm.

As I left the Sydney Phobia Clinic, I thought I'd definitely be back to take the course. I could see how, with a bit of preparation beforehand, those exposure sessions would help me overcome my fear.

A few days later, as I was making my way through the hallway of my apartment block, I came across another of those spiders. The panic gripped me again. But I took a deep breath and whispered, "Arachnophobia off." I knew that soon, those spiders wouldn't bother me so much.

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