Virtual Reality Therapy for Fear of Flying (Aviophobia)

Anyone who suffers from a “fear of flying” has most likely heard that the car ride to the airport is far more dangerous than the flight itself. However, because phobias are often unrelated to reasoning and fact, it is typically extremely difficult for a “phobic” person to be rational in relation to the feared object or situation. After all, the anxiety generated by the phobia is a physical manifestation of the anxiety that causes the symptoms common to people with the phobia.

As the Flying Psychotherapist dba. Multicultural CBT-DBT, LLC.,  I have been treating patients suffering from a fear of flying for many years both in my practice and also as having been a Flight Attendant for over 22 years.

What is Virtual Reality Therapy

The Virtual Reality Therapy (VRT) immerses the patient into a virtual commercial 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. During the treatment, the therapist maintains control of the details of the simulated flight thereby allowing exposure to the portions of the flight that create the most anxiety (e.g. take-off, landing, turbulence or even a thunder storm).

During the treatment the patient is encouraged to practice the “skills” they have been taught to induce deep relaxation during these times of high anxiety. The idea behind the 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. Virtual Reality Therapy (VRT) has a success rate exceeding 90 percent for those suffering with a fear of flying.

Fight or Flight

The Virtual Reality Therapy includes “biofeedback” which allows the therapist and client to see how they are physiologically responding to stress by monitoring heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, blood flow and even brainwaves through the various phases of flight. The therapist uses the biofeedback monitors to make patients aware of their reactions during the virtual flight and ultimately teach them how to better control these responses.

Biofeedback is extremely effective in teaching the benefits of “abdominal breathing” because it gives a true understanding of the body’s response to proper breathing and how proper breathing can actually relax the body. The client is therefore 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 which reduces the feeling of anxiety. Once the correct breathing pattern is learned it can be practiced in conjunction with the virtual reality experience and then ultimately during an actual flight.

How I work

Sessions will begin at the office and slowly incorporate “in-vivo” exposure, which is, placing the client in real life scenarios such as going to the airport listening to aircraft taking off and landing and eventually getting on a real flight with me, your therapist. My goal is to provide you with the opportunity to eventually enjoy being in the sky as much as I do!

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