Fear of public speaking is real and, for most of us, limiting. Whether it’s that sense of dread far in advance of the presentation or the rising feelings of panic as we wait for our turn to stand and talk, it can be gut-wrenching.
Standing in front of people can, at minimum, be uncomfortable but also causes panic attacks and depression. Most of us have experienced a racing heart, sweating, wanting to run away, or avoiding such requests to talk in the first place.
If left unchecked, public speaking anxiety can even affect educational performance and increase the chance of unemployment.
And yet, there is an unlikely treatment. Research shows that speaking in front of a virtual audience can dramatically reduce anxiety levels.
Virtual reality in therapy
When successful, computer-generated, three-dimensional environments can be highly immersive and interactive. And while their use is more common in design, gaming, or training, virtual reality (VR) has found recent success in psychological treatment and clinical research.
After all, when done well, VR can convince the wearer–and most importantly, their brain–that what they see, hear, and even feel in their digital experience is real.
Such computer simulations appear authentic because they mirror the real world and stimulate actual physical and behavioral responses. The VR environment can feel natural, and our interaction intuitive, giving the person wearing the headset the sense they are there and the ability to interact with the digital environment.
Haptic gloves, and even suits, take the experience even further, providing the sensation of touch, texture, and resistance.
For the therapist, the potential is limitless.
Environments can take clients to controlled and safe situations that make them anxious or stressed within agreed limits.
When tested in highly realistic VR simulations, participants asked to step off tall buildings experienced very real psychological and physiological responses associated with extreme stress and fear.
In therapy, such tools and methods have successfully treated post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias, and depression.
VR and public speaking
A 2017 study took a group of volunteers with public speaking anxiety and used VR to progressively increase frightening stimuli. Each participant was given a series of three graded exposure sessions. Audiences had previously been recorded using 360° videos of a lecture hall that was either empty or contained a small or a large audience.
Those taken through the exposure sessions were found to have lowered public speaking anxiety. The effect was more significant in those that feared public speaking the most.
Creating a more confident us
Success in treating fear suggests that VR can significantly benefit other situations that cause such state anxiety, including any environment where we lack confidence or suffer unwanted psychological, behavioral, and physiological responses. Indeed, VR has proven successful in treating people with other phobias such as a fear of flying and spiders.
But not only is such technology valuable in treating negative experiences, but it could also enhance positive challenges, such as improving sales pitches, strengthening leadership, increasing social skills, and becoming more emotionally aware.
The future of therapy and coaching may be virtual.
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