In a research project funded by the Foundation, scientists are using virtual reality methods to investigate the fundamental differences between anxiety and fear. Their objective is to gain differentiated biological insights into these two emotions and to derive therapeutical measures for the treatment of anxiety disorders, panic attacks, and phobias. The project “Experimental Differentiation of Anxiety and Fear in a Virtual Reality Environment” is headed by Prof. Dr. Martin Reuter from the Institute of Psychology at the University of Bonn.
Experiencing anxiety before an exam, and having fear of heights or of flying – we all know and use these expressions. But only few people can precisely define the difference between anxiety and fear. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, even in scientific research of the emotions. What is clear, however, is that anxiety and fear arise in confrontation with negative stimuli and surrounding conditions. Psychologists speak of fear when humans or animals flee from a threatening situation, for example when an attacker suddenly appears from behind a bush. In the case of anxiety, on the other hand, one is willing to face an unpleasant situation such as an examination. Unlike fear, the emotion of anxiety can be influenced by medication. From an evolutionary perspective, fear appears to be more relevant for the survival of a species. It cannot be suppressed, but leads to one of three graded alternative reactions: flee, freeze, or fight.
In the project “Experimental differentiation of fear and anxiety in a virtual reality environment,” scientists from the University of Bonn and the Technical University of Cologne are using an empirical approach to investigate the difference between fear and anxiety in humans. To collect data, they place test subjects in realistic virtual reality (VR) scenarios and record their reactions: The subjects move virtually inside an eerie underground laboratory with masked scientists and patrolling surveillance drones, in which uncanny experiments are carried out.
These gloomy VR scenarios harbor conflicts and thus especially stimulate anxiety among the test subjects. At the same time, the behaviors associated with fear – flight, fight, or freezing – are also specifically triggered. A particular scientific challenge entails defining and measuring individual differences as to how people respond to anxiety and fear, or how these can be implemented in the virtual world. Measurements are then made, for example, of the time it takes for a reaction to occur and the type of action chosen by the test subjects.
The researchers match the results against the test persons’ genetic markers and personality data. In the course of this three-year funding project, they are setting out to determine whether differences in individual personal characteristics regarding anxiety and fear can be validated using the VR data, and whether the behavior of a test person can be predicted. On this basis, new insights are expected to be gained for the treatment of anxiety disorders, panic attacks and phobias – whereby the latter two disorders are attributed to the emotion of fear. Virtual reality can also be used to conduct exposure therapies and to test anxiety-reducing drugs for their effectiveness.