Virtual Reality Therapy: Another Way to Fight Fear and Control Pain

IMAGE Bernadette kept her hands folded on her lap as she rode the glass elevator up the 50-story building. She stopped at the eighth floor and looked down. So far, so good. The elevator was not real, but Bernadette's fear of heights was. She was conquering acrophobia by riding elevators, crossing bridges, and looking out of high-rise windows—without ever leaving her therapist's office.

New Twist on an Old Theme

Virtual reality is an alternate approach to traditional exposure therapy, in which people are gradually and increasingly exposed to what they fear in an attempt to desensitize them to those fears. The new twist is the use of computer technology. The technology creates three-dimensional virtual worlds in which participants immerse themselves and learn to control their feelings and emotions about their phobias in the confines of an environment in where they feel safe. Phobias might center on spiders, driving, heights, or flying.

The Technology

A trip to a virtual world requires a computer, special software, and a helmet equipped with video screens and headphones. Electromagnetic sensors monitor heart rate and other physical responses. Once you don the helmet, the trip begins. The therapist monitors what you see on a computer screen and also manipulates some or all of the sensory input.Afraid of flying? Experience takeoff, flight, and landing without ever physically leaving the ground.The flight module might work like this: You enter the computer-generated passenger cabin of a virtual airplane to experience the various aspects of flying. A head-mounted display, stereo sound, and tactile stimulation are provided. You are gradually exposed to a variety of common flying situations such as:
  • Sitting in an airplane with the engines off
  • Sitting in a plane with the engines on
  • Taxiing on the runway
  • Takeoff
  • Flying in good weather
  • Flying in bad weather
  • Landing
During every step of the virtual flight, the therapist guides the program and watches your reactions. When anxiety levels become too high, the flight experience can move to a less stressful stage or be stopped completely by removing the head display.

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