Virtual Reality Therapy – A Breakthrough in Phobia Treatment

You’ve boarded the plane, and you’re all buckled in. Already you can feel the tightening in your chest, the beads of sweat on your brow, your heart beating like it’s going to pop out of your chest at any moment.

You hear the captain’s voice over the loudspeaker reminding you to please keep your seatbelt buckled as the plane begins to taxi down the runway. As your fingers dig into the arms of your seat, you feel the plane begin to move forward. The engines start to rev louder as the plane gains speed. You see the buildings and people outside start to be left behind at a faster and faster pace. You know the nose will be lifting at any minute, and the plane will no longer be touching the ground. Your stomach churns, your eyes dart wildly about as you look for a flight attendant. You need to get off this plane. You need to get off now.

As you begin to unbuckle your seatbelt and rise from your seat in a panic, you hear a soothing voice coming from the seat next to you. “Remember to use your breathing. In, out, slowly, feel the tension being released with every outtake of your breath. Start with your fingers and relax each part of your body in turn”. You try the deep breaths. You concentrate on your fingers and hands and try to open them up and stop gripping your armrests. The nose of the plane begins to leave the ground. Panic takes over and you begin to rise from your seat again.

“Okay, that’s good for a start. Let’s review your relaxation exercises and then we’ll try taxiing down the runway again”.

Everything freezes. Your glasses are removed, your headphones are removed. The airport disappears, the plane disappears, the flight attendants are no longer walking by and the captain is no longer announcing the plane’s progress over the loudspeaker. You are sitting in a comfortable chair inside your therapist’s office.

You are almost finished with your first Virtual Reality Therapy treatment for Aviatophobia, or fear of flying.

Virtual Reality Therapy, or VRT, is a relatively new breakthrough in the treatment of anxiety disorders – especially phobias. With the advancement of computer technology, therapies that were once limited to discussion, hypnosis, or real-life situation treatments have a new avenue that promises a safer and more controlled way to treat a patient’s fears and anxieties. Using realistic sounds through headphones, three-dimensional images through Virtual Reality glasses and other types of sensory input, a therapist can guide a patient through fearful encounters without the danger and uncertainty of the patient actually being in the real situation. Those who have a phobia of public speaking can stand at a podium and look out at the audience. Those who are afraid of heights can stand on the edge of a high cliff. Yet there is no danger of fainting in front of a crowd, or falling off that cliff. When the panic becomes too much, the crowd or the cliff can go away, and you are immediately back in a safe and comfortable environment.

The therapy does not just put patients through stressful situations over and over again in an attempt to desensitize them. Cognitive therapy is used along with the VRT to bring about a cure in a much quicker and more effective way than each would do on it’s own. The therapist can guide a patient through the Virtual Reality experience, suggesting relaxation techniques and addressing each concern in turn that the patient expresses while experiencing the situation. For most therapists and patients, this would not be possible in a real-life situation. Most therapists cannot accompany you to the airport and board the plane with you, or stand next to you at the podium while you attempt to make your speech to a crowd of one hundred people. Though I’m sure it’s been done, for most people this would be far too costly, and for most therapists it would just be too much work.

Another advantage of using the VRT situation is that the phobia can be addressed in stages. The therapist and patient can start off with the less frightening aspect of a situation, and graduate to the more stressful aspects as the patient progresses. Situations can be replayed over and over until the patient is ready to move forward. In this way the patient can control the pace of the therapy, and a feeling of safety and trust is established. Even though the patient controls the pace, most Virtual Reality Therapy is successful in as little as six to eight sessions.

Due to the equipment that is necessary, VRT can be a more expensive treatment than traditional cognitive or hypnosis therapy. With the establishment of VRT as an accepted practice over the last few years, however, it is often covered by the patient’s medical insurance.

Any person who suffers from a phobia would be wise to look into VRT. Find a therapist who has been trained in this type of therapy, and give it at least one try. With the help of computer technology and a reputable therapist, you may find yourself free from fear in no time at all!

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