Fly like an eagle with virtual reality therapy

San Diego 11 May 1998 The sheer sight of an aircraft can leave some people with cold sweat hands and even make them sick. Flying phobia usually is treated by means of gradual exposure to the feared experience. At the California School of Professional Psychology (CSPP), Brenda Wiederhold is the director of a new Centre for Advanced Multimedia Psychotherapy, where she uses integrated models of training to treat psychophysiological and psychological disorders. She recently has developed a programme combining real-time physiological monitoring with virtual reality graded exposure therapy to turn frightened people into confident and relaxed flight travellers in only eight sessions.

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The sheer sight of an aircraft can leave some people with cold sweat hands and even make them sick. Flying phobia usually is treated by means of gradual exposure to the feared experience. At the California School of Professional Psychology (CSPP), Brenda Wiederhold is the director of a new Centre for Advanced Multimedia Psychotherapy, where she uses integrated models of training to treat psychophysiological and psychological disorders. She recently has developed a programme combining real-time physiological monitoring with virtual reality graded exposure therapy to turn frightened people into confident and relaxed flight travellers in only eight sessions.

Soon, virtual reality techniques have been discovered as an ideal method to help people, suffering from acrophobia, agoraphobia, fear of flying, spiders, and many other complexes, to overcome their weakness by immersing them in an artificial, three-dimensional environment in which they gradually have to face the various aspects of their fear. The Centre for Advanced Multimedia Psychotherapy is one of four sites in the United States which treats flying phobia through the simulation of a real flight experience. The patient wears a head-mounted display, offering him the genuine feeling of sitting in a passenger cabin on a commercial aircraft.

In normal life situations, the patient often has to seek refuge in a dangerous mixture of sedatives and alcohol to calm himself down. At the Centre, he is provided a chance to get used little by little to the different steps of flight travel. The programme guides the patient through seven accumulating simulation experiences, which are: sitting on board with engines off, next with engines on, taxiing on a runway, take-off, flying in good weather, flying in a storm, and finally landing. All virtual reality therapy is thus build on a process of progressive desensitisation with faster and more effective results than conventional exposure methods. An average of eight training sessions suffices to obtain a liberating feeling of ease while flying.

The use of virtual reality technology in clinical psychology provides the therapist with the major advantage of being able to control the environment. He is free to decide on the degree of severity and the sequence of the stimuli. According to the patient's reactions, he can focus on a particular cue to which the client seems to be oversensitive, and thus tailor the programme to the specific needs of the individual. Director Brenda Wiederhold states that some thirty years ago, simulation trainings first were introduced by the military to assess performance for a variety of tasks. This has led to the virtual reality applications, which are currently being developed at the Centre for Advanced Multimedia Psychotherapy, to definitively cure people from their paralysing phobias. Driving fear and fear of heights will be the next fortresses to tear down.


Leslie Versweyveld

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