Bryant students test out virtual reality in Psychology course.
Lindsay Amper's students practice exposure therapy exercises in Bryant's Data Visualization Lab. Amper notes that virtual reality has been beneficial in simulating situations that are difficult to recreate in counseling sessions.
Psych students tap into virtual reality for exposure therapy exercises
May 16, 2024, by Emma Bartlett
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It’s a Monday afternoon in the Academic Innovation Center and Molly Anderson ’24, Deanna O’Donnell ’24, and Tiana DeGrace ’25 are generating a list of exposure therapy exercises for their simulated client who is afraid of driving. Familiarizing themselves with the Subjective Units of Distress Scale (SUDS), an assessment used to describe how much distress a particular exposure causes an individual, they eagerly discuss the various approaches to assist the individual in overcoming their fear.

“When you are helping your client with exposure therapy, you’re trying to prevent them from using what we call safety behaviors,” Psychology Lecturer Lindsay Amper, Ph.D., explains to her “Counseling Theory and Practice” students as she roams the room. “Those are the things we do to try to accommodate because of the phobia or anxiety. For instance, if I were afraid of driving, I might take a bus or a train.”

Tasking each group with developing 10 exposure therapy exercises, Amper notes that at least four of the exercises must rely on virtual reality. In an age where technology is advancing its role in health care, students are learning how these tools can play an effective role in treatment plans.  

“Say you were treating arachnophobia, you might do something called imaginal exposure where we ask the person to imagine a spider crawling up their arm,” says Amper. “Virtual reality takes the imagination out of it and puts you into a situation where you're experiencing it in a virtual reality setting.”

According to WebMD, 40 million American adults have some form of anxiety disorder, yet only 37 percent get the help they need. Additionally, in 2023 Forbes Health reported that research published in Annals of Behavioral Medicine revealed that burn victims who engaged in virtual reality exposure therapy and were transported to a snowy world where they interacted with snowmen and threw snowballs had their physical pain reduced between 35 and 50 percent.

In groups, students gather in Bryant’s Data Visualization Lab weekly and move through the exercises they’ve created. Working their way up the exposure ladder each session, one individual will act as the client while the remaining group members will serve as joint therapists. Their goal is to create a viable plan that addresses the client’s anxiety.

Amper notes that virtual reality has been beneficial in simulating situations that are difficult to recreate in counseling sessions. For instance, a client with a social anxiety disorder may be afraid of public speaking and won’t be able to confront that fear until they are thrown into a real-life situation. Put on a virtual reality headset, however, and that same individual can find themself standing in front of a classroom of people and can work on the problem in a safe setting.

In addition to their exposure therapy unit, undergrads complete a 16-hour internship over the semester. Amper says some students are working with DCYF case workers on how to field intake calls while others are shadowing child and caregiver support groups.  

“Two students are also working at the YMCA: one is designing assessments to ask the aging population about how they can be better supported, and the other is observing the childcare center to try and implement different strategies to help with behavioral issues,” Amper says.  

Whether undergrads are pursuing a career in psychology or have a general interest in the subject, Amper says students gain a lot of life skills from the course.

“Let's say you or somebody you know is experiencing some kind of anxiety, you now know the gold standard treatment for what a person needs to do to effectively move through this problem in their life,” Amper says. “You’re also learning how to actively and empathically listen and reflect back what somebody is saying.”

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