Local News

Virtual Reality Program Helping People Overcome Fears

Posted November 12, 2003

— Call it a fear or phobia. We all have something we are afraid of to some degree. When that fear takes control of your life, it is probably time to get help.

Virtual reality is helping some patients, like Dawn Tripp, tackle their fears and regain control of their lives.

Riding in elevators used to be Tripp's worst nightmare.

"It felt like if you went in, you wouldn't get out," she said.

Tripp did not ride an elevator for 17 years. Things changed one day after she attended a luncheon at the top of the Progress Energy building in downtown Raleigh.

"I was dressed up in heels and I actually walked 21 floors up. I knew then I've got to get over this phobia," she said.

Then Tripp heard about the virtual reality program at Duke.

Therapist Cynthia Jones uses virtual reality to help people face their fears.

Jones controls a virtual environment using a computer keyboard; patients wear a virtual reality headset.

For people who are afraid to fly, a program simulates a flight from check in to take off.

Tripp used a similar program simulating an elevator ride.

"The noises, the sounds, the motion -- you actually feel like you're in an elevator," she said.

Jones coaches patients through the experience and checks their fear factor on a scale from 1 to 100.

"One hundred is they feel like they're going to die. Zero is no problem whatsoever," she said.

Studies show virtual reality is up to 90 percent effective.

"For most people, they would either get over the phobia or experience a fair amount of relief," said Dr. Les Forman, a Duke psychiatrist.

It took only four visits before Tripp felt ready to face her fear.

"I walked right in and my heart wasn't racing. I mean, it was like I had done it all my life. It just opens up roads like you wouldn't believe," Tripp said.

Besides easing fears of heights and flying, virtual reality is also used to treat people who are afraid of public speaking and thunderstorms.

Researchers are also testing virtual reality to treat soldiers with post traumatic stress disorder. Most people need between eight to 12 sessions to see results.

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