New Zealand study finds mobile app able to relieve symptoms of common phobias

A clinical trial in New Zealand has found a cognitive behavioral therapy program based on a virtual reality app to reduce symptoms of common phobias.


Conducted between May and December last year, the randomized, controlled trial recruited a total of 129 adult participants with fears of flying, heights, needles, spiders and dogs. It was led by Dr Cameron Lacey, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychological Medicine at the University of Otago.

The study involved the use of a virtual reality mobile app called oVRcome, which offers an exposure therapy program for patients with anxiety and phobias. Exposure therapy helps patients build tolerance for their specific phobias through short periods of exposure.

The program includes standard CBT components including psychoeducation, relaxation, mindfulness, cognitive techniques, exposure through virtual reality, and a relapse prevention model.

Based on resultswhich were published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of

Psychiatry, the app-based CBT program improved symptoms of phobias by 75% in participants after six weeks of treatment.

According to Dr Lacey, “Some participants reported significant progress in overcoming their phobias after the trial period, with one feeling confident enough to now book a family holiday abroad, another queuing for a COVID-19 vaccine and another reporting that they now felt confident not only knowing there was a spider in the house but that they might be able to remove it themselves.”

The study also noted that over the course of the trial, participants with all five types of phobia showed “comparable improvements” in the scale of specific phobia severity measures.


Dr Lacey said the study revealed great potential for using virtual reality and mobile apps as a means of self-guided treatment for people struggling with often disabling phobias. Globally, one in twelve people are afraid of flying, needles, heights, spiders and dogs.

oVRcome’s app-based exposure therapy program gives users greater control over exposure to their fears than traditional exposure treatments don’t. “More traditional in-person exposure treatments for specific phobias have a notoriously high drop-out rate due to discomfort, inconvenience and a lack of motivation in people seeking fears to expose themselves to. “, said Dr. Lacey.


The most recent applications of VR technologies in Asia-Pacific focus on medical education and help relieve physical pain. Vendors in this space include Japanese virtual reality maker Jolly Good and Australian startup Vantar VR.

A recent study in the United States found that Computer-assisted CBT helped improve symptoms of depression in primary care patients, compared to just regular treatment.

Currently, CBT techniques are used in mental health programs offered by mobile health platforms like Intellect and MindFi in Singapore.

In other related news, oVRcome recently won the Trans-Tasman Innovation & Growth Fund Award at the 2022 Australia New Zealand Leadership Forum.


New Zealand entrepreneur Adam Hutchinson developed the oVRcome app with clinical psychologists with the aim of improving accessibility to mental health care. He said up to 80% of people with mental health issues do not seek treatment due to cost, location, stigma and lack of trained psychologists.

According to Hutchinson, only a few mobile apps on the market have been clinically studied for their effectiveness in treating mental health issues. “We’re really excited to hear that users were able to gain confidence and take action to overcome their phobias… The trial results give us real confidence as we launch the product internationally. We know we can make a difference for so many people,” he said.

Jennifer C. Burleigh