VR Apps to Help You Conquer Your Fears

Terrified of spiders? There's a VR app for that!

Woman scared in VR
Photo: South_Agency / Getty

Everyone is afraid of something. Maybe you’re afraid of spiders. Perhaps speaking in front of large groups makes you sweaty and uneasy.  Whatever it is that strikes fear into our hearts, most of us wish that we could master our fears and conquer them.

Some fears are just annoying nuisances, while others can be completely debilitating. Everyone is unique with respect to how badly they are affected by their fears.

While some may seek treatment for anxiety, many of us just try to avoid, whenever possible, whatever it is that frightens us.

For those of us who want to face our fears head on, the recent availability of consumer-grade Virtual Reality devices from Oculus, HTC, Samsung, and others has made fear exposure therapy possible.

There are now a plethora of fear-facing apps that most anyone can download and use in conjunction with their VR headsets to try and see if they can conquer their fears.

WARNING: If you have serious fear and anxiety regarding something contained in the apps listed below, you shouldn't attempt to use these apps without the permission and supervision of your doctor. Exposure therapy is not something anyone should attempt on their own without proper supervision by a trained professional.

Note: Some of these apps are specifically advertised as face-your-fears-type apps, while others make no claims of helping you deal with fear but were included in this list because they place users in situations that might be stressful and may relate to specific fears or phobias.

Fear of Heights

Richie's Plank Experience (VR app)
Richie's Plank Experience (VR app). Photo: Toast

The fear of heights is fairly common. It’s probably not a fear we encounter all the time in our everyday lives, but when we do have to deal with situations involving walking near ledges, riding in glass elevators, and so forth, our hearts can flutter, our knees can wobble, and we can experience fear and anxiety.

Thankfully, there are more than a few apps that attempt to help people with acrophobia. Here are two popular ones:

Richie’s Plank Experience
VR Platform(s): HTC Vive, Oculus Rift
Developer: Toast

Richie’s plank experience let’s you walk a virtual plank on top of a skyscraper. In Richie’s Plank Experience, you start out in the middle of a bustling city. The app places you at ground level right next to an open elevator that you enter. Once inside the hyper-realistic elevator, you make menu choices by pressing the elevator floor buttons.

The first option, “The Plank,” takes you to the near top of a skyscraper. As the doors close and you begin to ascend, you hear soothing elevator music. You get a slight peek outside through the small crack between the closed elevator doors as you head toward the top. This small glimpse helps heighten your fear as it also plays on the fear of malfunctioning elevators and shows you just how high the building is.

The developer has done a great job with the photo-realism of the elevator and the environments. The surfaces inside the elevator are very reflective, and the lighting is superb, as is the wood grain detail of the actual plank that you walk on. Another attribute that heightens your immersion in this app is the sound design. When you reach the top of the elevator and the cheesy elevator music stops, you hear wind noise, the sound of the distant city traffic below, birds, the noise of a passing helicopter, and other such sounds. It’s very believable. You really don’t want to step outside the elevator onto the plank.

To truly increase the immersion factor, the developer has added the ability for users to place a real-world plank on the floor of their virtual reality play area. The app allows you to measure the real plank with your motion controllers so that the virtual plank in the app matches the real-world piece of wood that you choose as your plank. Another immersion hack is to find a portable fan and have it set up to face the person in VR. It’s these little touches that give you the sense that you are actually there on this virtual skyscraper.

So what happens if you fall off the plank? We won’t spoil it for you, but we will tell you that the ride to the bottom can make you sweat a little bit (or a lot).

The fun doesn’t end there with Richie’s Plank Experience. There is a mode where you can use a hand held jet pack to fly around the city and put out fires with a hose you hold in your other hand. We’re not sure where the water comes from, but we really don’t care because it’s so much fun. Additionally, there is a skywriting mode as well, and there may or may not be an “add spiders” option. You’ll just have to find out for yourself.

#BeFearless Fear of Heights - Landscapes
#BeFearless Fear of Heights - Cityscapes
VR Platform(s): Samsung Gear VR
Developer: Samsung

Where Richie’s Plank Experience just goes straight for it. #BeFearless from Samsung tries the crawl-before-you-can-walk method. I’m thinking there were doctors (or maybe lawyers?) involved in this one because this app has level progression, can be paired with a Gear S device to check your heart rate, and asks you how “nervous” you were after each level. If you’re too nervous, it won’t let you advance.

#BeFearless - Fear of Heights, is actually two apps. one is called ”Landscapes”, and the other is named “Cityscapes”. They include a virtual suspension bridge walk, driving on a cliff edge, a helicopter skiing experience, glass elevator ride, and several others. Unfortunately, these aren’t interactive games, they are just 360-degree videos of these experiences, and the video is pretty low quality, which doesn’t help the immersion. These two apps might be best for those who are very new to VR. They really aren’t the most impressive or immersive experiences available, but they will at least allow users to slowly get their virtual feet wet.

Perhaps Samsung will upgrade the video quality for this app in the future and make it more immersive.

Fear of Public Speaking

Limelight VR (VR app)
Limelight VR (VR app). Photo: Virtual Neuroscience Lab

While it is fairly easy to avoid situations in which fear of heights might be an issue, avoiding public speaking is not as easy because we are often required to engage in some form of public speaking whether it be for class presentations, business meetings, or even just giving a toast at a friend’s wedding. Speaking in public is just something that we have to try to muddle through, even though many of us are terrified of it.

Fortunately, several VR app developers have come to our rescue and are creating apps to help people deal with their fear of public speaking.

Samsung apparently really wants to help people get over their fear of public speaking because they have made no less than three different #BeFearless-branded Fear of Public Speaking apps.

#BeFearless: Fear of Public Speaking - Personal Life
#BeFearless: Fear of Public Speaking - School Life
#BeFearless: Fear of Public Speaking - Business Life

VR Platform(s): Samsung Gear VR
Developer: Samsung

In the Fear of Public Speaking - Personal Life app, you are placed in small group or one-on-one social circumstances where you interact in situations that you might encounter in daily life (outside of work and school), such as making small talk with someone on a train, making a toast, giving a speech, and even singing in a Karaoke bar (complete with licensed music from real artists).

In School Life, you are placed in a collegiate setting where you are put in situations such as making casual talk with classmates, attending a school conference, giving a class presentation, and sharing your opinion with the class.

The Business Life #BeFearless app brings work-related situations into the mix, such as a job interview, business lunch, team meeting, management presentation, and job fair.

All three of the #BeFearless Fear of Public Speaking apps claim to rate your performance based on your voice volume, speaking pace, eye contact (based on VR headset position), and heart rate (if paired with a Samsung Gear S device with heart rate monitor). You can only progress to new scenarios when you’ve gotten at least a “good” rating on the current scenario. These apps are all free and worth a download if you have fear of public speaking in any of these various scenarios.

Limelight VR
VR Platform(s): HTC Vive
Developer: Virtual Neuroscience Lab

Limelight VR is essentially a public speaking training app. It provides various venues (business meeting area, small classroom, large hall, etc.), allows you to select the mood of the audience, and even allows you to interact with various objects such as markers, whiteboards, microphones, and podiums.

The app also allows you to import slide decks from Google Slides so that you can practice giving an actual presentation just as if you were doing it for real. 

Fear of Spiders

Arachnophobia (VR app)
Arachnophobia (VR app). Photo: IgnisVR

Far removed from the sweat-inducing fear of public speaking is the fear of those eight-legged nightmares known as spiders. Arachnophobia, as it’s officially known, is another common fear that will cause grown men to scream their heads off.

Arachnophobia
VR Platform(s): HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, OSVR
Developer: IgnisVR

Arachnophobia (the VR app) describes itself as  “a VR application within the field of health and psychology, a - not too serious - self-controlled implementation of a virtual reality exposure therapy session, where you gradually expose yourself to spiders.”

The app lets you add more or fewer spiders, keep them under virtual glass, or allow them to hang out on your virtual desk with you while you try not to run out of the virtual room screaming. You can vary the exposure situation and level to whatever you’re comfortable with, and, don’t worry, there is a virtual first aid kit on your virtual desk in case things go bad.

Other Fears

TheBlu (VR app)
TheBlu (VR app). Photo: Wevr, Inc.

There are so many different fears and fear-related apps that it’s hard to cover them all. Here are a few other ‘honorable mention’ fear-related apps:

Face your Fears for Gear VR covers some fears but is more of a horror app than a therapy app. It currently has scenarios for fear of heights, fear of clowns, ghosts, and other paranormal things, fear of being buried alive, and fear of spiders, and snakes of course. Face Your Fears is free to try, but several of the experiences (or "doors: as they are known in the app) must be in-app-purchased.

TheBlu by Wevr is a great app for those who fear the ocean and sea creatures such as whales and jellyfish. In one of the episodes of TheBlu called Whale Encounter, you are placed underwater standing on the bridge of a sunken ship, various sea creatures swim by as does an enormous whale that swims past and makes eye contact. It is by far one of most impressive experiences to currently be had in VR.

While we didn’t find any great apps for fear of flying in airplanes, there are several excellent relaxation-related apps, such as Relax VR, that can at least take you to a virtual happy place while you’re riding in an  airplane. The immersion of VR can fool your brain into thinking its in a wide-open space rather than the claustrophobic confines of a airplane cabin. 

Additionally, there are a wealth of extreme-sports-related first person 360-degree VR videos that allow you to jump out of airplanes, ski down steep mountains, ride a rollercoaster, and do all kinds of other things you might not do unless you knew you couldn’t be gravely injured.

A Word of Caution:

Again, check with your doctor before you try anything that you think might really produce serious anxiety. Don’t push yourself beyond what you’re comfortable with, and make sure you’re VR play area is clear of any obstacles so that you don’t get injured when attempting any of these apps.