How Virtual Reality Can Help Overcome the Fear of Driving 

The fear of driving (amaxophobia) can cause high levels of anxiety and stress in some individuals. However, with the use of virtual reality technology, those with such a phobia can begin to overcome the common mental health issue and no longer be a backseat passenger in their everyday lives. Let’s explore how VR therapy is shaping amaxophobia treatment. Within the current classification system of mental health disorders, amaxophobia (fear of driving) is one of many phobias that afflicts individuals around the world. Those with the disorder experience a high degree of fear that, when presented with stimuli during driving, grows in intensity. The host of variables that can influence the severity of the phobia ranges from driving location and speed to driving solo or heavy traffic. Those factors notwithstanding, the issue for all patients is the same: their well-being suffers and their daily lives are held hostage to apprehension. Normal tasks like the everyday commute become triggers of anxiety or panic attacks.Overcoming the fear of driving is challenging, albeit not impossible. Cognitive behavioral therapy has proven beneficial to patients who suffer from such a disorder. However, to treat amaxophobia, it is worth considering an alternative therapeutic approach, such as virtual reality (VR) therapy. Unlike in vivo exposure therapy, VR therapy provides mental healthcare professionals with the opportunity to standardize and control parameters in exposure sessions, even remotely. Thus far, VR therapy has shown positive findings in treating the driving phobia. In this post, we delve into the evidence supporting the use of virtual reality and how to couple the breakthrough technology with standard mental health practices to manage the fear of driving. 

Is VR therapy really an effective approach in treating amaxophobia?

Since the integration of virtual reality in amaxophobia treatments, various investigative teams have highlighted that patients stand to benefit greatly from such line of approach. For example, in a study by researchers from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ in Portuguese), a cohort of female patients with driving phobia underwent scheduled eight virtual reality exposure treatment (VRET) sessions.  In each session, patients participated in a computer game with driving scenarios and several traffic circumstances. Sense of presence, subjective distress, and physiological responses, alongside other clinical parameters, were evaluated. In this particular cohort, researchers found that VRET had not only mitigated the effects of the phobia slightly, lowering levels of anxiety, but it had also incurred no risk to the patient. VRET had provided a realistic driving experience for effective exposure therapy but under an even more controlled, yet immersive environment. With the advancement of new technologies such as brain computer interface (BCI), VRET could prove even more advantageous to both patients and mental health professionals. BCI technology integration in VRET allows for intelligence-guided adjustments to be made automatically in response to a patient’s degree of fear. This, in turn, would provide the psychologist or psychiatrist with a more controlled, measurable environment while enabling a safe, gradual systematic desensitization for the patient. 

How does virtual reality fit within amaxophobia treatment?

 At Psious, we have designed a VR tool with various traffic scenarios to help individuals overcome their fear of driving. The patient is immersed in a virtual, yet realistic driving situation, in which factors like time of day, speed, or even cell phone interruptions are set by the mental health professional to reenact triggers that would cause anxiety in real life. We have established a protocol that sets specific objectives for each meeting between patient and mental health professional to ensure progress. In a series of 8 sessions, the following is targeted:

  1. Psychoeducation – this comprises understanding and learning the origin of the phobia, as well as all of its associated signs and symptoms. It is also an opportunity to introduce virtual reality, speak about the protocol and answer any doubts or concerns that the patient may relay. 
  2. Relaxation – in this session, two types of breathing exercises are explored to provide the patient with coping tools during moments of anxiety, stress or panic. The patient is also introduced to a neutral virtual environment to prepare for a smoother transition into subsequent virtual sessions. 
  3. Virtual exposure + relaxation (4 sessions) – the patient confronts different traffic scenarios. Triggers vary from one session to the next; however, breathing techniques remain the same. 
  4. Conclusion and relapse prevention  – Both the mental health professional and patient perform an evaluation of the therapy sessions and prepare a plan of actions for future exposure to driving. The patient is then equipped with a separate set of tools to prevent prospective relapses. 

It is important to note that throughout all these sessions, patients are encouraged to complete tasks at home after each meeting to assess and build upon their progress.  Additionally, therapists are provided with “suggestions”, that is, lines that could contribute to anxiety triggers, to foster a more realistic situation. 

How to integrate this tool in future therapy sessions?

If you treat patients suffering from amaxophobia or other similar phobias, we encourage you to take a look at our virtual reality therapy services. At Psious, we offer virtual reality tools and environments for many mental health disorders. Using virtual reality therapeutic methods can provide the solution that both you and patients have been seeking.


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