Conditioning treatment by VR 390.
(photo credit: Courtesy of University of Haifa)
Most Israelis love to fly, but some are so fearful of entering a plane and
flying (aviophobia) that they have to go by land or sea or forgo their trip
completely. Now the University of Haifa has developed a virtual reality (VR)
therapy combined with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to treat this common
phobia. While lending itself to a wide range of disciplines, VR continues to go
beyond the world of games, as it meld well with CBT for treating aviophobia and
many other psychological conditions.
Psychology Prof. Marilyn Safir and
Dr. Helene Wallach developed the technique, which already shows an impressive
success rate. What makes this treatment so efficient, they say, is exposure to
the cause of the fear, which for aviophobia sufferers may include enclosed
places, heights and suffocation, which can cause panic attacks, vomiting or
fainting, the researchers explain.
“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 implements the CBT treatment while ensuring controlled exposure
to the cause of fear. 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 flight.
“Since exposure is
controlled, the patient realizes that he will never become overwhelmed by
anxiety during the course of this CBT process. As a result, he will suffer less
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 says. The experience challenges patients’
irrational thoughts and perceptions about flying, helping them to develop
cognitive skills, and thus relieves feelings of being unable to adequately cope
with the situation.
The aviophobia patient who comes to Wallach and
Safir’s lab sits on an airline seat (donated by Arkia), and undergoes the full
flying experience from beginning to end. He gets comfortable in the seat, hears
the safety instructions from the flight attendant, through the taxiing down the
runway, takeoff, the flight itself (including some turbulence) and landing
Using VR also gives the researchers the ability to simulate
complicated and more extreme conditions.
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The treatment is based on
earlier studies conducted by Safir and Wallach in this field, who have published
numerous studies on the effectiveness of using VR for phobias not only of flying
but also glossophobia – a fear of speaking in public.
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,” conclude the researchers.
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