Objective: This is the first randomized trial comparing virtual reality exposure therapy to in vivo exposure for social anxiety disorder.
Method: Participants with a principal diagnosis of social anxiety disorder who identified public speaking as their primary fear (N = 97) were recruited from the community, resulting in an ethnically diverse sample (M age = 39 years) of mostly women (62%). Participants were randomly assigned to and completed 8 sessions of manualized virtual reality exposure therapy, exposure group therapy, or wait list. Standardized self-report measures were collected at pretreatment, posttreatment, and 12-month follow-up, and process measures were collected during treatment. A standardized speech task was delivered at pre- and posttreatment, and diagnostic status was reassessed at 3-month follow-up.
Results: Analysis of covariance showed that, relative to wait list, people completing either active treatment significantly improved on all but one measure (length of speech for exposure group therapy and self-reported fear of negative evaluation for virtual reality exposure therapy). At 12-month follow-up, people showed significant improvement from pretreatment on all measures. There were no differences between the active treatments on any process or outcome measure at any time, nor differences on achieving partial or full remission.
Conclusion: Virtual reality exposure therapy is effective for treating social fears, and improvement is maintained for 1 year. Virtual reality exposure therapy is equally effective as exposure group therapy; further research with a larger sample is needed, however, to better control and statistically test differences between the treatments.