Can driving simulators help?

A new phobia treatment centre has opened in Spain (Burmin Institute) which uses virtual reality simulators to treat a range of phobias and anxiety states. The treatment – called virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) – is based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) whereby gradual exposure to the feared situation in a controlled virtual world is intended to reduce or extinguish the fear responses.

Over the years there has also been research into the efficacy of virtual reality treatments on driving phobia. For example the study by The University of Manchester (Science Daily).

These studies show some benefit although it can be a slow process – often taking 12 sessions over 3 months – and a costly one (creating and running the advanced simulators is expensive).

Far better then to use the greatest virtual reality simulator know to man: the human brain. Everyone’s got one and access is quick and free. But using it correctly is the trick. In fact, it’s the misuse of this wonderful simulator – the human imagination – that creates so many problems in the first place.

That’s why we can terrify ourselves with nightmares and phobics can scare themselves just by thinking about their phobic trigger. A driving phobic just has to think about a future journey and the imagination will kick in and create a disaster movie of it in their head. The brain struggles to distinguishing between reality and this near-perfect simulation and starts to trigger basic survival responses and can tip them into panic even before they get anywhere near a car.

So what we do in the MindSpa Phobia Clinic when treating the fear of driving and other phobias is to utilise the power of this virtual reality simulator using a variety of tools which rely strongly on directed visualisations to decondition the phobic patterns and responses and install calm ones for future. This can all be done in a very safe and controlled way and very quickly – typically in one or two sessions.

Life in the slow lane?

With driving phobias, not only does the driving itself become physically and emotionally exhausting, but huge amounts of time and mental energy are used in planning and then driving alternative routes or else using public transport.

This is life in the slow lane.

The avoidance and manipulation takes effort too.

All this starts to put pressure on work, social and family life. No longer being able to drive to work, go to the shops, visit family and friends, take the children out on trips and holidays or just drop them off at school and parties has a huge impact on day-to-day living.

Add in the embarrassment and self-doubt (“what’s wrong with me?”) to the loss of freedom, independence and spontaneity, and driving phobia becomes a real limit on living.

Amazingly though, many sufferers will accommodate driving phobia in their lives for years and even decades, believing that they are alone and no-one will understand their fear of driving or be able to help. Some will be lucky enough to have opportunities not to drive at all: perhaps their partner does it all, or they live in a metropolis with congested roads and good public transport or have a private driver.

Most drivers though will get to a point – maybe because of a particularly uncomfortable incident or a change in personal circumstances – when they think “enough is enough” and do something about it. And get help.