Health Scan: Facing your fears in virtual reality

VR continues to go beyond world of games, as it melds well with CBT for treating aviophobia, many other psychological conditions.

Conditioning treatment by VR 390 (photo credit: Courtesy of University of Haifa)
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 safely.
Using VR also gives the researchers the ability to simulate complicated and more extreme conditions.
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.
“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,” conclude the researchers.