Virtual reality has been billed as the next big thing for some time now, but it always managed to fall short of its seemingly infinite potential. Perhaps that is because, upon its initial introduction to the public, it was viewed as a device most aptly used for amusement. Or perhaps it was due to the technology not quite meeting performance expectations. Either way, VR has been making huge strides recently in fields outside of entertainment. One, in particular, is psychology where it has numerous applications as a therapeutic tool, especially in the treatment of phobias.

In the world created by virtual reality, there is a very thin line between what feels real and what is. Although you are cognizant of the fact that your experience is not real, the signals your eyes are sending to your brain are saying otherwise. So no matter what you tell yourself, there is still a visceral gut reaction to what you see in the headset. During the VR experience, you can remind yourself that what you’re seeing is not happening and that you are therefore in no real danger. But by gradually exposing people to their most intense fears, the resulting anxiety can be minimized to manageable levels.

The way that psychologists and researchers are using VR to treat phobias is based on traditional exposure therapy. The theory is that if a patient is subjected slowly and frequently to what causes the feelings of panic, they will eventually learn to tolerate the trigger as it loses its power to cause an adverse reaction. Now that the 3-d environments simulated by VR are realistic enough, it is the perfect tool for the job.

Therapists no longer need to gather a box of spiders or hike to the top of a mountain. They can now guide their patient through any sort of terrifying experience from the comfort of an office setting. There are even plans for people to receive treatment at home through the internet because many of those who suffer from phobias are too embarrassed to seek help.

This new VR therapy can enable people to take control of their lives. Though not all fears are unfounded, no one should allow a phobia to determine their course. Thankfully the burgeoning world of virtual reality has given us a new way to fight our fears head-on.