For most of us, social interaction is the best part of our day. Going out to dinner with a loved one or to a party with friends is something that we crave. However, for people with social anxiety disorders, it’s the opposite. Social interactions can be a major source of stress for upwards of 15 million Americans over the age of 13, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). According to a survey done by the ADAA in 2007, 36% of people with social anxiety disorder report that they experienced symptoms for ten or more years before seeking professional help. Social anxiety disorder is an intense feeling of unease or nervousness in social situations. This could be for fear of embarrassing oneself, of being judged by others, or a number of other underlying problems. However, the difference between social anxiety disorder and someone who just gets nervous before speaking in public, which is normal, is that social anxiety is so severe that it disrupts the sufferer’s social life entirely, causing the person to miss out on things they want to do and even to isolate themselves completely. 

Fear, fright, shadow on the wall

Djinns are supernatural creatures in Arabic and Islamic mythology. In the west, we mostly call them “genies”–creatures who may come out of a magical artifact, such as a lamp, and are capable to granting wishes to whoever frees them. With this magical solution to problems in mind, researchers from the Universities of Geneva, Würzburg in Germany, and the Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands have come up with an augmented reality treatment for social anxiety disorder using exposure therapy. We’ve already talked a little about AR and exposure therapy, which you can review HERE

Magic Aladdin's Genie lamp

Exposure therapy is where patients are made to confront their feared object, stimulus, or situation in a controlled setting. It is often difficult to do for a number of reasons, ranging from price to impracticality. However, augmented reality exposure therapy (ARET) has become a very viable alternative. Social anxiety disorder is a bit more challenging to treat with exposure therapy, because the nature of social situations is complex and the fear is often difficult to define or pinpoint. It is also often difficult for patients to describe their own anxiety when it comes to social anxiety disorders, and sometimes they are even too nervous to consult a therapist about the problem. Gradual exposure is one of the most crucial parts of exposure therapy, ensuring that the patient does not get overwhelmed–which can be difficult in an in vivo setting. Public settings are chaotic and the therapist does not have control over them, which means that often real exposure therapy for social anxiety disorder patients is not effective, making the disorder difficult to treat.  

With those challenges in mind, the aforementioned Universities collaborated on the idea of the DJINN–which combines VR and AR Exposure Therapy (which to us sounds a little bit like Mixed Reality. You can refresh those concepts HERE.) The therapist will use the DJINN to expose patients to things like casual conversations with strangers, fictitious job interviews, dining in a restaurant, shopping or returning a product, and a host of other situations that can set off anxiety attacks. The system will also allow the doctor to assess patient behavior, such as gaze direction and duration, movement, and other stats that will help the therapist to determine the efficacy of the treatment and the patient’s progress. It will also allow the patient to be introduced to these scenarios gradually, in a controlled setting, making it a great tool for social phobia sufferers.   

The DJINN system is accessed by the patient through an AR Head Mounted Display, so as to make the environment as immersive as possible and to ensure that the movement of the user is not inhibited. The patient will confront their anxiety trigger while the system provides support in the form of cues, advice, and soothing comments. It also suggests the use of a smartwatch to monitor the patient’s heart rate, which is another good benchmark for anxiety levels. 

Yogi man in meditation

With all of this in mind, we could probably think of a few uses for this kind of technology. It can go well beyond social anxiety, helping people who struggle with just basic shyness (which is not the same as social anxiety; you can read about the difference HERE) and even people with autism spectrum disorders. Specifically, the social anxieties and misunderstandings that affect people with Asperger’s disorder. It could also possibly be used for patients with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other anxieties and phobias. Of course, this is just a concept right now, but eventually, we would love to see more development of this technology.  

Let us know what you think about this in the comments section! 


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