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Virtual Reality Therapy for Fear of Flying (aviophobia)

Dr. Reiner on the National Geographic Show helps a patient overcome her fear of flying

Anyone who suffers from fear of flying has most likely heard the statistic that the car ride to the airport is far more dangerous than the flight itself. Because phobias are unrelated to reasoning and facts, it is impossible for a phobic person to be rational in relation to the feared object or situation. It is a physical reaction to anxiety that causes the symptoms common to people who experience phobias. At Behavioral Associates we have been treating patients suffering from fear of flying for over a decade using a breakthrough treatment that is a combination of Virtual Reality Therapy (VRT) and biofeedback. This treatment has a success rate exceeding 90 percent, typically lasting 12-16 weeks with one 45 minute session per week.

VRT immerses the patient into a virtual airline flight using a head mounted display with a 3-D image similar to those used for virtual reality games. It creates a visual, auditory and sensory environment that psychologically exposes the patient to the entire flying experience. The therapist maintains control of the details of the simulated flight thereby allowing exposure to the portions that create the most anxiety (e.g. take-off, landing, turbulence or even a thunder storm). During this time the patient is encouraged to practice tools they have been taught to induce deep relaxation. The idea behind Virtual Reality Therapy is that when a person learns to change their physiological response during the virtual experience, with practice, they generalize these newly acquired skills to make the same changes in real life.

Fright or Flight

Biofeedback allows the patient to see how they are physiologically responding to stress by monitoring heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, blood flow and even brainwaves. The therapist uses biofeedback monitors to make patients aware of their reactions during the virtual flight and ultimately teach them how to control these responses. It is extremely effective in teaching the benefits of abdominal breathing because it gives a true understanding of how the body responds to the way we breathe and how our breathing can actually make us more relaxed or more nervous. The patient is taught a breathing technique (deep belly breathing at a rate of 5-7 breaths per minute) that synchronizes respiration with heartbeat to produce sinus arrhythmia, a state in which it impossible to feel anxiety. Once the correct breathing pattern is learned it can be practiced in conjunction with the virtual reality experience and eventually during an actual flight.

Contact us or call our office at (212) 860-8500 to learn if Virtual Reality Therapy (VRT) for fear of flying is the right treatment for you.

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