Are you afraid of flying? The University of Haifa in Israel claims it has recently implemented an effective and proven form of therapy that uses virtual reality technology to treat the common phobia.
While lending itself to a wide range of disciplines, the technological advancement known as virtual reality continues to shift beyond the world of games. Virtual reality is now proving its significance in supporting the treatment form called Cognitive Behaviorial Therapy (CBT).
CBT’s effectiveness in treating phobias such as the fear of flying, also known as aviophobia, was tested by Prof. Marilyn Safir and Dr. Helene Wallach from the University of Haifa’s Department of Psychology. The two developed Virtual Reality-assisted CBT to treat patients suffering from aviophobia at their research lab.
Safir and Wallach explain that the main component of phobia therapy is exposure to the cause of fear, which for aviophobia sufferers may cause anxiety, fear, panic attacks, vomiting and fainting spells.
“While exposing individuals to their fears is imperative to the productivity of CBT, people just don’t want to be exposed to the cause of their phobia, which is what perpetuates the phobia and thwarts the whole course of therapy,” explains Wallach. The new virtual reality program developed by the two implements the CBT treatment is able to control the exposure.
Full flying experience
Sign up for our free weekly newsletterSubscribe
Instead of asking patients to try to imagine they are on board a flight, they are exposed to a simulated environment by using a helmet that provides a 3D experience of all stages of flying.
The aviophobia patient who comes to the lab sits on an airline seat and undergoes the full flying experience from start to end. It starts with the patient getting comfortable in the seat, hearing the safety instructions from the flight attendant, taxiing down the runway, followed by takeoff, the flight itself – including some turbulence – and landing safely.
Using Virtual Reality also gives the researchers the ability to simulate complicated and more extreme conditions. “Using virtual reality has enormous benefits in providing treatment for this type of phobia. We have full control over exposure to different situations and the patient does not reach overwhelming anxiety at any point. We can also go over and over any stage of therapy, which in the real world would be too costly for most patients and therapists,” note the researchers.
“Since exposure is controlled, the patient realizes that he/she will never become overwhelmed by anxiety during the course of this CBT process. As a result, he/she will experience a reduction in anxiety, as the anticipated catastrophic events do not occur, allowing the patient to practice both behavioral and cognitive coping skills that develop further during therapy,” Wallach ensures.
The experience challenges patients’ thoughts and perceptions about flying, helping them to develop cognitive skills, and hence alleviates thoughts of being unable to adequately cope with the situation, the researchers explain.
According to the researchers, CBT showed an impressive success rate and a high percentage of people have shown improvement following therapy.
Photo by Dushan and Miae