Design Engineering
Showcase

Using Virtual Reality as a Therapeutic Tool for Reducing Social Anxiety in People Who Stutter

Course
Research
Supervisor
Dr Nejra Van Zalk
Theme
This is Going to Help

Recent technological developments and increasing access to technology have opened up new opportunities in the treatment of mental health. With near ubiquitous access to smartphones and the internet, technology is also being incorporated into various forms of self-help. Recent research has demonstrated the effectiveness of using smartphone virtual reality (VR) in the treatment of social anxiety. The current project will build on this to design and test a self-guided, smartphone-based VR exposure therapy, specifically for reducing social anxiety associated with stuttering.

 — Using Virtual Reality as a Therapeutic Tool for Reducing Social Anxiety in People Who Stutter

Background

VR has emerged as a promising tool to conduct exposure therapy, an integral part of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which aims to reduce the response to anxiety-inducing stimuli through repeated exposure to these stimuli. In the case of social anxiety, this involves exposure to virtual environments emulating social scenarios that typically induce anxiety. Benefits of conducting exposure virtually include greater accessibility and approachability. However, with growing pressure on mental health services, and the recent lockdowns imposed on human movements across the globe due to COVID-19, there is growing demand for remote mental health solutions. Increasing development in smartphone VR capabilities, and the growing number of smartphone VR headsets, now mean that conducting VR exposure therapy (VRET) remotely is becoming more realistic.

Current Project

Whilst research has begun exploring the efficacy of smartphone VR exposure for social anxiety, no work has explored its use in treating the heightened social anxiety associated with stuttering. This project will develop a self-guided smartphone-based VRET, specifically designed to target social anxiety experienced by people who stutter and conduct a randomised controlled trial to examine its efficacy. This will also build on previous research by incorporating physiological measures of anxiety and eye-tracking to assess the effect on gaze avoidance. This study will also seek to further our understanding of how some key processes, including therapeutic alliance and presence, operate in a remote self-guided form of therapy, and how they contribute to treatment outcome.

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