In Brief

Virtual reality is living up to its name when used in therapy for fear of flying, finds a new study. Researchers who compared the results of virtual reality therapy to standard exposure therapy found that the therapies were equally effective in decreasing symptoms of people afraid of flying.

The study's findings could be good news for the estimated 25 million adults that are afraid to fly because virtual reality therapy has the potential to be an efficient and cost-effective treatment. Unlike standard exposure therapy, virtual reality can expose clients to simulated flying within the standard therapy hour and allow therapists to manipulate situations to best suit the client, such as repeatedly taking off in one session.

Psychologists Barbara O. Rothbaum, PhD, of Emory University School of Medicine, and Samantha Smith, PhD, of Walter Reed Army Hospital, enrolled 45 participants into one of three groups--virtual reality therapy, standard exposure therapy or a control group.

During the study's virtual reality therapy sessions, patients wore a head-mounted display with earphones and sat in a specially designed chair to simulate flight. The patients progressed at their own pace through a series of simulations: sitting in the airplane, engines off; sitting on the plane engines on; taxiing; take-off; a smooth flight; landing; and a flight through stormy weather.

In addition to standard paper-and-pencil measures conducted before and after treatment and follow-ups at six and 12 months, researchers asked participants to take an actual roundtrip flight accompanied by a therapist. Anxiety ratings during these flights indicated that virtual reality-treated patients were as comfortable as standard exposure-treated patients.

The researchers detected no significant differences between the post-treatment scores and scores at a six-month follow-up, indicating that both groups maintained treatment gains over the six-month follow-up period. By the six-month follow-up, 14 of 15 virtual reality participants and 14 of 15 standard exposure participants had flown since the termination of treatment.