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Virtual Plane Calms Flying Fears


A pilot's voice comes on as the cruising altitude is reached and later when the plane is preparing to land. The program can be altered to create turbulence, with the blue-sky window view turning dark and stormy.

People who use the program quickly forget the images are computer generated and begin to feel just as scared and anxious as when they actually fly or think about flying, say those who have used the software. During the program, the person and the therapist can talk to one another, and the therapist can make certain parts of the flight longer or shorter to better address the person's particular fears.

So far, one study involving 45 people was done to test the effectiveness of this program in addressing flying fears. First, all of the people completed four sessions with a therapist to learn ways of controlling their anxiety. Then, one-third of the group got standard exposure therapy and one-third used the virtual reality program, with each group having eight sessions over a six-week period. The final third did not receive further treatment.

All 45 were asked to take a plane flight following the therapy, and an average of nine people from each of the virtual reality and standard therapy groups was able to make the flight. Yet only one person in the group of 15 who received no follow-up session was able to fly. Even a year later, the people in the two treatment groups continued flying.

The programs are available only in a few locations, although many therapists are becoming more interested in them, Hodges says

For the therapist "the main obstacle right now is price," Rothbaum tells WebMD. "But the cost has come way down."

For patients, there is greater convenience, with the therapy costing about the same as traditional treatment for phobias. Rothbaum predicts that someday these programs will be sold directly to patients who need them.

Jerilyn Ross, president of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, tells WebMD virtual reality programs could be a good way to help people combat their fears one step at a time "while having the safety net" under them of the therapist's office. "It could be a terrific way for people to get started. It could be a good tool as part of a comprehensive program," in which the person is not only taught to be less afraid, but is also taught relaxation techniques and strategies to control their thoughts about flying, says Ross.



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