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At the Sydney Phobia Clinic, patients come face to face with their greatest of fears in the safest of environments, with Virtual Reality and cognitive therapy leading the way.
As a thousand Internet listicles attest, the world of the phobia is a strange, albeit familiar island, where the locals are terrified of heights, public speaking, needles and the intentions of the rambunctious Labrador down the street.
However, if you dismissed the pain of the above people, with a throw back of the head and a smirking guffaw, you’re part of the problem. I’m guilty of it too; we bought a pogonophobia-afflicted (fear of beards) relative a ZZ Top album every Christmas.
This behaviour is extremely common, as the phobia has long held root as an avenue of derision, with those who suffer them relocated to social limbo, their conditions in collective minds deemed unimportant, or worse, fictional.
But while we may laugh heartily and roll our eyes, do those who are afflicted not suffer? In greatest of Twilight Zone tradition, picture the scene:
You are seeing someone; they laugh at your horrible jokes, they’ve met your dog, your minutes together are bordered by the thought of “how can this feel so right so early?”. Everything seems perfect. But there’s a problem. For some reason, he keeps changing your dinner plans at the last minute, nervously with the repeated the line, “I’d rather just eat at home with you”. Eventually, the suspicion overcomes you and you confront him.
Trust flamed, and hackles raised, you find that it’s not that he’s ashamed of you, but that he has a phobia about eating in public, and in turn, your suspicion has brought shame to his previously radiant face.
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Pop quiz: Who would call who back? Would you be able to bounce back from that breach of trust so early on? Or would you just find a reason to change the subject when your friends ask, “What happened to that guy”?
How do you think they feel? Yeah. Alongside the damage wrought by the phobia, is the social damage of being one of those “phobia people”. As many as 1 in 10 Australians possess at least one phobia, however a finite number actually seek treatment. And why would you if your condition is met with a stifled scoff, or a dismissive huff?
This is where the pioneering minds at the Sydney Phobia Clinic arrive, a collective who are bridging the gap in phobia treatment with their ingenious method:
As the most successful phobia treatment is exposure therapy, where one literally faces when they fear most, the clinic has brought that concept into the 21st century, allowing patients to face their fears through the safety of a VR environment, while being guided through the treatment by a clinical psychologist. The response to the treatment has been staggering, and the combination between cutting edge tech and traditional methods makes the clinic unique.
Corrie Ackland (Director and Clinical Psychologist) and Pieter Rossouw (Founder and CEO) of the Sydney Phobia Clinic:
“The gap between what we know works from research and what’s available to the public seems to be growing rather than shrinking. VR treatment for phobias has been used in research for around 20 years with great results, but is still not readily available to people who need it. We expected to be able to purchase similar experiences off the shelf, but have not been able to do so. We’re continually surprised by how slowly technology is taken up the mental health industries. We’re also continually blown away by the positive response we receive for what we’re building.”
Through the proven record of specialised treatment now freely available to the public, I’m predicting that through the application of technology, the lifetimes spent on Phobia Island will become a thing of the past.