Objectives: Anxiety disorders are among the most frequently encountered psychiatric disorders. Recommended treatments include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and/or medication. In recent years, beneficial effects of virtual reality (VR) exposure therapy have been shown, making this technique a promising addition to CBT. However, the ability of VR to mimic threatening stimuli in a way comparable to in vivo cues has been discussed. In particular, it has been questioned whether VR is capable of provoking psychophysiological symptoms of anxiety. Since psychophysiological arousal is considered a prerequisite for effective exposure treatment, this systematic review aims to evaluate the evidence for the potential of VR exposure to evoke and modulate psychophysiological fear reactions.
Methods: PubMed and PsycINFO/Academic Search Premier databases were searched. Thirty-eight studies investigating challenge or habituation effects were included.
Results: VR exposure does provoke psychophysiological arousal, especially in terms of electrodermal activity. Results on psychophysiological habituation in VR are inconclusive. Study design and methodological rigour vary widely.
Conclusions: Despite several limitations, this review provides evidence that VR exposure elicits psychophysiological fear reactions in patients and healthy subjects, rendering VR a promising treatment for anxiety disorders, and a potent research tool for future investigations of psychophysiological processes and their significance during exposure treatment.
Keywords: CBT; anxiety disorders; exposure therapy; psychophysiology; virtual reality.