Treating social anxiety with virtual reality

First-year college students arrive on campus with tremendous excitement – and in some cases, tremendous worry. When students confront an entirely new social scene, without the support of the friends and family they left at home, they may develop social anxiety, or the fear of being negatively evaluated or humiliated.

Social anxiety affects up to a third of college students, and hinders their academic achievement. Students who are ethnic or racial minorities, or who come from low-income families, are especially prone. And more than 90 percent of all social anxiety sufferers never receive treatment

Page Anderson, an associate professor of psychology, intends to address social anxiety among college students using an online, virtual-reality treatment program.Clinics in Australia, Sweden and Switzerland have had success with online programs for treating social anxiety.

“There is more evidence supporting internet-based treatment for social anxiety than for any other anxiety disorder,” Anderson said. “Remarkably, internet-based programs for social anxiety programs exist in other countries, but not yet in the United States.”

Anderson’s program teaches users skills to cope with anxiety, and, more importantly, how to face their fears. The program will use virtual environments with videos to simulate common social scenarios at college – meeting a new person, speaking in front of a class. After completing the simulations, users will go try their skills in the real world. . Throughout the program, users will be in online contact with a therapist, who will answer questions, encourage the use of newly developed skills, and support students to use those skills The program will also provide materials for friends and family, to teach them how to offer appropriate support.

An early version of Anderson’s program will be unveiled on October 19 at an event featuring Ricky Williams, former NFL player and social anxiety sufferer. Williams will speak about his own experience conquering social anxiety. The event will also include a hands-on demonstration of the online virtual reality tool that Anderson is developing.

The free, community-wide event will take place at 6:30 pm in the Speakers Auditorium of Student Center East. The event is sponsored by the Kukes Foundation, which is also funding Anderson’s research, and hosting by Minding Your Mind, a nonprofit that aims to reduce stigma and build prevention models for mental health in schools.

To register for the Oct. 19 event, please visit the No More Running event page.