Virtual reality technology allowing people to watch themselves interact in simulated social situations could combat anxiety.
The video capture system developed by the University of East Anglia (UEA) creates an out-of-body illusion, allowing participants the chance to experience social interaction in the safety of a virtual environment.
A life-size image is project into a scripted video scene allowing them to practice interaction with other people in more than 100 real-life situations, for example using public transport, buying a drink at a bar or socialising at a party.
Dr Lina Gega, from UEA's Norwich Medical School, says: "People with social anxiety are afraid that they will draw attention to themselves and be negatively judged by others in social situations.
"Many will either avoid public places and social gatherings altogether, or use safety behaviours to cope such as not making eye contact and being guarded or hyper-vigilant towards others.
"Paradoxically, this sort of behaviour draws attention to people with social anxiety and feeds into their beliefs that they don't fit in. We wanted to see whether practising social situations in a virtual environment could help."
The researchers tested whether this sort of experience could become a valuable part of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a range of therapies used to combat various psychological conditions.
Paul Strickland from Xenodu, the company behind the virtual environment system, says: "Our system uses video capture to project a user's life-size image on screen so that they can watch themselves interacting with custom-scripted and digitally edited video clips.
"It isn't a head-mounted display, which anxious people may find uncomfortable. Instead, the user observes from an out-of-body perspective. They can then simultaneously view themselves and interact with the characters of the film."
The project focused on six socially anxious young men recovering from psychosis who also have debilitating social anxiety and the participants engaged with a range of scenarios, some of which were designed to feature rude and hostile people.
The virtual environments encouraged participants to practice small-talk, maintain eye contact, test beliefs that they would not know what to say, and resist safety behaviour such as looking at the floor or being hyper-vigilant.
The main benefits of using these virtual environments in therapy was that it helped participants notice and change anxious behaviours in a safe, controlled environment which could be rehearsed over and over again.
"It helped the participants question their interpretation of social cues,” Gega says.
"For example, if they thought that one of the characters was looking at them 'funny' they could immediately see that there must be an alternative explanation because the scenarios were artificial.
"Another useful aspect of the system is that it can be tailored to address specific fears in social situations; for example a fear of performance, intimacy, or crowds."
The next stage for researchers is to carry out a randomised, controlled comparison of CBT with and without the virtual environment system to test whether using the system as a therapy tool leads to greater or quicker symptom improvement.
A video of the virtual reality technology in action is available at www.facebook.com/eandtmagazine