Whereas agoraphobia is usually associated with the fear of being trapped alone in an open space, claustrophobia is the fear of being trapped in an enclosed place. There is often a strong association between the two phobias; many of those who are fearful of large, open spaces also seem frightened of small, enclosed spaces. About one in ten people suffer from some sort of claustrophobia-from mild to marked-with about 2% of the population suffering from severe claustrophobia. The fear begins in childhood in approximately one-third of claustrophobics, and more women appear to suffer from this disorder than men.
One of the most common signs of claustrophobia is an individual’s refusal to ride in an enclosed elevator. Other common claustrophobic fears include closets, tunnels, airplanes, and certain medical testing machinery, such as magnetic resonance imaging, hyperbaric oxygen treatment, and computed tomography scan.
Virtual reality provides an environment for clients to be exposed to these situations without common problems of loss of confidentiality or risk to personal safety. In the therapist’s office, the client is given coping and relaxation skills prior to exposure. The virtual environments allow the client to experience varying degrees of anxiety relating to elevators, tunnels, and other enclosed spaces.
Each situation can be repeated until the client is comfortable with the experience and satisfied with their response. The therapist has the ability to see and hear what the client is experiencing in the virtual world as well as to monitor physiological response. If the client’s level of anxiety becomes overwhelming, they can return to a less stressful level of treatment, or simply remove the head-mounted display and exit the virtual world.
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