Virtual reality therapy to treat phobias: Is it effective? How does it work?

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“Yes, the relapse of any phobia can occur,” said Roberts. Traumatic experiences, life stressors, changes in the environment, encountering the fear in a different context are some of the factors that can trigger and reactivate the phobia, he said.

“Understanding potential triggers, and having strategies and adequate skills to continuously practise and apply them in new situations are an important aspect of managing and preventing a relapse,” said Roberts. When the fear returns, exposure therapy can be used again and coping strategies can be practised to help the individual regain a sense of control and reduce anxiety, he said.


Koo said that it helped when the virtual cockroaches were gradually moved towards her, giving her time to process her emotions. But the biggest takeaway was that she had “never thought so deeply about cockroaches”. Speaking to a professional had a different outcome for her compared to say, talking to friends about her phobia. “If I were having this conversation with friends, it would be back-to-back horror stories,” she said. 

Roberts agreed. “I don’t think there would be so much reflection. Everyone is going to say cockroaches are bad and share their negative experiences. From such conversations, you wouldn’t get a different perspective. You may feel your emotions are being dismissed when they say things like, aiyah, why are you feeling like that.”

Are cockroaches still Koo’s mortal enemies? “Not that I embrace cockroaches now but I would look at them differently and be able to be in more control when I next see them.”

If you’re thinking of giving VR therapy a shot, the key is to not overthink it. “Just go with the flow and whatever comes, comes,” said Koo. For now, “it’s something I would practise the next time I see cockroaches, which is probably next month!”, she quipped.

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