An extreme fear of heights or acrophobia affects about 1 in 5 people and is one of the leading fears on the planet. If this sounds like you or someone you know — there’s hope. Researchers at Oxford University are now treating a fear of heights with a VR headset, controllers, and apps with major success for those scared of ledges, high rises, and taking an elevator.

Overcoming a Fear of Heights

The VR app is a therapy and therapist free way to overcome the fear and anxiety of being at varying heights. The app’s animated guide, or avatar, leads participants in the virtual simulation. They go from a beginner-friendly ledge and progresses higher up after each stage gets completed.

Participants at the Oxford University study put on by Oxford VR learned to face their fear of heights and then incrementally built up a tolerance for heights. The control group that received treatment over just two weeks had something interesting happen. 70% of the 49 people in that group managed to become free from fear. The 51 people who didn’t nix the fear were in the no treatment group, according to The BBC and Science News for Students.

How did they do it?

First, researchers took participants on a simulation that made them see imagery like the ground and higher floors with depth and movement. Then, these brave souls practiced going up floor by floor, 10-stories up, rode in an elevator, picked apples, saved a cat from a tree, and even rode on the back of a whale. Now that’s exposure therapy!

With practice, the app taught participants that they were safe both inside and outside the simulation. Most importantly, this made it easier to work through the fear, identify it, and stop it when it began. Daniel Freeman, a clinical psychologist at the University of Oxford in England told Science News for Students that “the person builds up memories that being around heights is safe,” and that “This counteracts their fears.”

Does it work?

Fay got over a fear of heights VR
Credit to: Fay Nugent via The BBC

The results from the small group study of 100 showed that treating a chronic fear of heights can be overcome by using a VR application like the one from Oxford University. With 44 of the 49 participants getting rid of the fear in just a few sessions over two weeks, the future of triumphing over a fear of heights is very promising.

Fay Nugent, a participant from the BBC article, was originally part of the control group who went without treatment. After the trial she accepted an offer to try the app and has completed it. Recently she shared that she celebrated her new fear free life with a rooftop party. Fay confidently shared, “Heights don’t worry me now. I recently managed to get on a 30m-long [100ft] escalator at Helsinki airport and I was absolutely fine.”

As far as intensive therapies are concerned, more studies like this one would help determine if VR apps are more effective when used with therapy and a therapist for treatment. We do know that less urgent issues like a fear of heights are just a starting point for Virtual Reality.