During a fear-inducing virtual experience, anxious individuals tended to overemphasize threat, leading to increased skin conductance and higher subjective distress. This finding comes from a study published in Personality and Individual Differences.
Virtual reality (VR) technology offers researchers a way to create highly realistic and interactive experiments while keeping subjects well out of harm. A recent study by Dino Krupić and his team used VR technology to explore individual differences in response to an induced fear of heights. Specifically, they were interested in whether threat magnification – the tendency to exaggerate the presence of danger – could explain differences in the physiological arousal and distress response to fear.
“The prevalence of anxiety and depression is increasing worldwide. Public health services in many countries deal with this growing problem by utilizing pharmacotherapy. I believe that is not the right way to maintain public mental health,” said Krupić, an associate professor at University of Osijek in Croatia.
“Certainly, anxiolytics are very useful as a part of the treatment of anxiety, but should not be prescribed as the only treatment. If we want to explore other possibilities in reducing anxiety, it is vital to understand what leads to the rise of anxiety in stressful situations.”
A sample of 122 participants of an average age of 22 took part in a virtual reality experience called Richie’s Plank Experience. The VR experience asks subjects to walk a two-meter-long wooden plank that appears to be at the very top of a skyscraper, overlooking a cityscape below. After the plank experience, participants were assigned to one of three conditions: listen to a mindfulness recording, watch a relaxing VR animation, or sit in silence (control condition).
Before the experiment, subjects completed the Pain Catastrophizing Scale (PCS) as an assessment of threat magnification, and the anxiety and fear scales of the Questionnaire of Approach and Avoidance Motivation (QAAM). Moodmetric rings measured subjects’ skin conductance levels throughout the experiment and subjects rated their state of physiological arousal immediately after the plank experience. Finally, subjects rated their levels of distress before the plank experience, immediately after it, and following the relaxing condition.
Most individuals showed a decrease in skin conductance following the plank experience, suggesting a freeze response to fear. Anxious individuals, however, showed an increase in skin conductance. Mediation analysis offered insight into how subjects’ anxiety may have influenced their distress during the VR experience. It was found that the relationship between anxiety, physiological arousal, and subjective distress was mediated by threat magnification (PCS scores).
“What we found is that anxious individuals experience higher physiological reactions when experiencing fear of heights, which is something that we expected. However, we manage to explain why that happens. Namely, anxious individuals tend to magnify or overestimate the dangerousness of threats from the environment,” Krupić told PsyPost.
“Subsequently, they tend to focus their attention on physiological stress reactions (such as heart beating, sweating, etc) which are followed by increased activity of the autonomic nervous system. After the induction of fear of heights, we compared two relaxation techniques; a brief mindfulness technique and VR relaxation animation. In contrast to the control group (no treatment), both methods successfully reduced the distress.”
The researchers propose that anxious individuals “are prone to catastrophizing”, which in turn “increases perceived physiological arousal, which then leads to a higher subjective levels of distress.” Accordingly, the authors suggest that interventions to address catastrophic thinking might be beneficial for individuals struggling with anxiety.
Finally, although both relaxation conditions were found to reduce subjects’ experience of distress following the plank experience, the relaxing nature VR had the most beneficial effects, particularly for subjects with the highest perceived arousal. The authors take this as support for the effectiveness of mindfulness interventions as well as distraction (through virtual reality) in reducing distress.
“These findings suggest that there are two ways to reduce the level of anxiety. First, reducing the threat magnification tendencies can be effectively used in the prevention of stress. Instead of focusing on physiological body reactions (such as sweating and heart beating), an individual should reinterpret or reanalyze the level of threat,” Krupić explained.
“In the case of fear of heights, it would be much more useful to increase the level of control over the situation. For instance, to search for the handrail or to stand a bit further from the balcony fence, and similar. If we keep our mind busy by finding a way to control the situation, we are not focusing on our bodily experiences, and that can reduce the subjective level of distress. Secondly, in the case of experiencing higher levels of stress, it is good to know that even a brief mindfulness technique and immersive VR relaxation animation can eliminate the stress.”
To confirm the relevance of their findings, the researchers suggest that future studies should be conducted among a clinical sample.
“Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) has been found very useful in treating anxiety problems. One of the most important aspects of the CBT is automatic negative thoughts that occur in stressful situations, which we will explore in our future studies,” Krupić said.
The study, “Anxiety and threat magnification in subjective and physiological responses of fear of heights induced by virtual reality”, was authored by Dino Krupić, Barbara Žuro, and Philip J. Corr.
(Photo credit: Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung)