Using Virtual Reality to Overcome Fear of Flying


Nowadays new information and communications technologies (ICT) have taken root in our lives and made them easier in many ways, including helping us to perform very complicated tasks and make them more accessible. Many people see them as an opportunity and an aid to human advancement and growth, but others with a more traditional mindset see the advancement of ICT as something negative for humans. We’re in the former camp, particularly when it comes to virtual reality (VR) and fear of flying.

How We Work with Aerophobia Using VR

Fear is an emotion that has existed since the dawn of humanity. It alerts us to difficult situations, leading us to face or flee them (“fight or flight”). It’s useful for survival, but it’s also true that the feelings it generates are unpleasant, and can also make us upset about possible future situations – creating a sense of discomfort that can even become paralysing. This is especially true with a phobia, when the fear of something is so disproportionate that it becomes overwhelming and life-inhibiting.

However, phobias such as that of flying can be worked through using virtual reality sessions – the number of which depends on the patient’s response to them – with qualified staff in specialised clinicsm creating an approximation of reality through 3-D experiences.  These simulations should be progressive in intensity and will depend on the person, their circumstance, and their level of aerophobia. The effectiveness of the sessions can be checked with a biofeedback metre that measures the patient’s physical responses when exposed to certain stimuli. 

Advantages of Using VR for Aerophobia 

The main plus of VR is that mental-health professionals can program and manage, according to the patient’s needs, the stimuli that the person will experience, exposing them to situations that cause fear; there are studies* which show the effectiveness of virtual reality in treating phobias and patients’ progressive improvement. Another advantage is that VR treatments have lasting effects in real life. 

Price has always been a factor before starting this type of therapy. Many believe that VR is an expensive tool, but as technology advances, its use is becoming more affordable. Keep in mind, too, that these treatments prove effective quite quickly, so in the long run, you can save money and time.  

Lastly, VR does not need imagination on the part of the patient as does the traditional method carried out by psychologists. Not everyone can immerse themselves in imaginary situations and live them as if they were real, but VR simulations make this process much easier.

Materials and Procedures

The main tool needed is a set of VR glasses, connected to a computer on which a specialised professional can generate controlled situations so the patient can face them. This VR rig also has built-in audio, which makes the experience seem even more real, since the patient will hear sounds similar if not identical to those they’d hear getting on an airplane and inflight.  

It’s also is important to conduct these sessions in a large, relatively empty space, because since the immersion seems so real, the patient can make unexpected movements – so plenty of room is required to make sure that they don’t run into anything. 

Once the space and the rig are in place, the professional will carry out proven and safe simulations which will be made based on the phobia and the degree of fear that the patient has. It will be done in a progressive way, starting with situations of lesser intensity, and then moving on. Examples could include would be packing the suitcase; making the journey to the airport; and inflight turbulence.

Finally, it should also be made clear that virtual reality is not a cure, but rather a tool that allows mental health professionals to help the patient with their fear, and usually very effectively indeed. So if you suffer from this phobia, it may be very much worth your while looking up VR options near where you live!

*such as “Can Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy Gains Be Generalized to Real Life? A Meta-Analysis of Studies Applying Behavioral Assessments” by Morina, Ljntema, Meyerbröker & Emmelkamp in the journal Behavoir Research and Therapy, November 2015)
by guest blogger Psicoline