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Open Access Research article

Is virtual reality always an effective stressors for exposure treatments? some insights from a controlled trial

Federica Pallavicini1*, Pietro Cipresso1, Simona Raspelli1, Alessandra Grassi2, Silvia Serino1, Cinzia Vigna1, Stefano Triberti1, Marco Villamira3, Andrea Gaggioli1 and Giuseppe Riva12

Author Affiliations

1 Istituto Auxologico Italiano IRCCS, Applied Technology for Neuro-Psychology Laboratory, Milan, Italy

2 Department of Psychology, Catholic University of Milan, Milan, Italy

3 Iulm University, Milan, Italy

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BMC Psychiatry 2013, 13:52  doi:10.1186/1471-244X-13-52

Published: 11 February 2013



Several research studies investigating the effectiveness of the different treatments have demonstrated that exposure-based therapies are more suitable and effective than others for the treatment of anxiety disorders. Traditionally, exposure may be achieved in two manners: in vivo, with direct contact to the stimulus, or by imagery, in the person’s imagination. However, despite its effectiveness, both types of exposure present some limitations that supported the use of Virtual Reality (VR). But is VR always an effective stressor? Are the technological breakdowns that may appear during such an experience a possible risk for its effectiveness?


To answer these questions we compared changes following the exposure to an academic examination, one of the most universal examples of real-life stressors, in a sample of 39 undergraduate students. The same experience was offered using text (TX), audio (AU), video (VD), and VR. However, in the virtual environment we manipulated the experience introducing technological breakdowns. The Post Media Questionnaire (PMQ) and the Slater-Usoh-Steed Presence Questionnaire (SUS) were administered to each participant in order to evaluated self-report measures of anxiety and relaxation and the level of presence experience during media exposure. Electrocardiogram (ECG), Thoracic Respiration Signal (RSP) and Facial corrugator supercilii muscle Electromyography (EMG) were recorded in order to obtain objective measures of subjects’ emotional state.


Analyses conducted on PMQ showed a significant increase in anxiety scores and a mirror decrease in relax scores after all our emotional procedures, showing that all the condition were effective in inducing a negative emotional response. Psychometric scores and psychophysiological indexes showed that VR was less effective than other procedures in eliciting stress responses. Moreover, we did not observe significative difference in SUS scores: VR induced a sense of presence similar to that experienced during the exposition to other media.


Technological breakdowns significantly reduce the possibility of VR eliciting emotions related to complex real-life stressors. Without a high sense of presence, the significant advantages offered by VR disappear and its emotional induction abilities are even lower than the ones provided by much cheaper media.

Trial registration

Trial registration number: NCT01683617

Stress; Emotion elicitation; Virtual reality