Fear of flying

Virtual reality makes the skies friendlier

Afraid to fly? Emory wants you.

Researchers there are conducting a clinical trial using virtual reality to tackle fear of the not-so-friendly skies. Although virtual reality exposure therapy has been used before, researchers are adding a new twist. They want to see if this will prevent a relapse.

Principal investigator Barbara Rothbaum, PhD, associate vice-chair of clinical research and professor in Emory’s department of psychiatry is a pioneer in the development of virtual reality therapy.

How will the study work?
Everybody is getting active treatment. People who are eligible will get eight sessions of treatment for free. The first four sessions are anxiety management techniques: breathing, relaxation methods, information about flying and statistics and airplanes. In the last four sessions, we do virtual reality exposure therapy. We have a virtual airplane and they wear a headmounted display–kind of a helmet with two little television screens in front of each eye–earphones, and a position tracker so as they move their head in reality, their view changes in real time.

It starts in the airport in the gate area and they move through the walkway and end up on the airplane. We can construct the “perfect” exposure. If they’re not ready for turbulence, we can guarantee there won’t be turbulence. If they are ready, there will be turbulence.

What’s different about this study than others involving virtual reality?
If you do a very brief fear cue 10 minutes before the session starts, it seems to protect against relapse. They don’t feel anything different. It’s an audio/visual trigger, a couple seconds long. We’re going to follow people for a year when they finish to see how they’re doing.

What type of volunteers are you looking for?
We’re in Atlanta and people are motivated to get treated for their fear of flying. They can’t travel for work. They can’t go on vacation. We find that about half of the people have a fear of crashing. About half have more claustrophobic fear that they’re going to have a panic attack on the airplane.

For the study, they have to have an excessive fear of flying. They have to either avoid flying or endure it with a good deal of anxiety and it has to interfere with their life. It has to cause some problems for them.

Currently, how do most people treat their fear of flying?
The primary way is they avoid. The next way is drugs and alcohol. People will usually take tranquilizers or they drink. Some people really have to drink a lot. They have to fly the day before because they’re going to be blotto the day they get there.

Do you think virtual reality will work?
We’ve done two studies in the past and it was very effective. By the six-month follow-up, 90 percent of people had flown. That’s what’s cool. It does seem to transfer to real life.

For information on the study, call 404.712.8300 or email regross@emory.edu