Using virtual reality to conquer fears of sexual assault
Researchers in the Outaouais are hoping to use virtual reality to help victims of sexual assault who have post-traumatic stress disorder. Their lab at the University of Quebec in the Outaouais has re-created realistic scenarios to help these victims face their fears in a virtual world.
Psychology student Claudie Loranger is giving CTV Ottawa’s Joanne Schnurr a tour of what is termed "the cave", a sophisticated multi-million dollar virtual reality lab. With 3-D effects and a unique four-sided lab, this virtual world feels pretty real.
The scenario is a familiar bar scene for most people. But for some women, it is a trigger that reminds them of a traumatic event; a sexual assault. Across the virtual bar is a man, guzzling beer, staring me down. I turn my virtual self around and leave. I exit onto a deserted street and head for the bus shelter across the way.
“How is your level of anxiety now?” asks Loranger. She’s a constant beside my side, checking my anxiety level, my heart rate. “I feel a little afraid because I don't like being outside at night in deserted area,” I answer.
Loranger is at the testing stage for her research at the University of Quebec in the Outaouais. She's looking for two groups of women: those who have never been victims of a sexual assault and those who have. The therapy is gradual so victims are not re-victimized.
“What we know from previous studies is that facing your fears is not something that adds to the traumatic fear,” says Loranger, “it's therapeutic and that reduces the fear.”
Virtual reality is currently being used to treat soldiers suffering from PTSD and to treat phobias. Treating victims of sexual assault is a whole new area of therapy.
Unlike real life, the patient controls the situation. It empowers them to react.
"We could help women feel less paralyzed,” says Dr. Stephane Bouchard, who is the Canada Research Chair in Clinical Cyberpsychology working out of the university. “They don’t have to be house-bound, they could actually go into therapy, do the treatment for PTSD and conquer their fear and be able to walk like anyone else and feel safe.”
Dr. Bouchard says the hope is to use virtual reality, along with broader cognitive behavioral therapy, as part of a treatment package.
If you are interested in taking part in the research, you can contact Claudie Loranger at firstname.lastname@example.org.