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Mental Health Center

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Virtual Plane Calms Flying Fears


Hodges, Rothbaum, and others from Virtually Better demonstrated the program for flying fears at a meeting of the American Psychological Association meeting here this week.

A person is strapped into a seat -- just like on a plane -- and dons a large headset that covers his or her eyes and ears. The person sees images to simulate sitting in a window seat over the wing; the image changes as you turn your head. Noises simulate the sound of the plane's engines, while a flight attendant announces that take-off is coming up. Then the person feels as if the seat and floor are rumbling as the plane speeds down the runway, with the tarmac rushing by outside the window.

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.

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