Local News

Virtual Therapy Helps Patients Conquer Fears

Posted March 13, 2003 10:48 a.m. EST

— The thoughts of flying, heights and creepy spiders can paralyze some people, but a virtual reality program is helping patients conquer debilitating fears.

Larry Hodges, a computer science professor at UNC-Charlotte, helped create virtual therapy. The computerized system helps people conquer their fears from the comfort of their therapists' office. He has developed several programs for fears like public speaking and fear of flying.

Patients don helmets with a built-in video screens. What they see is a virtual look at what they fear, like the inside of a plane. The program goes through all phases of flying from takeoff to landing. It can even simulate thunderstorms and turbulence.

"They still get the sweaty palms. They get anxious -- the same exact symptoms they get in the real world," he said.

Plus, subwoofers help to vibrate the chair, for an even more realistic flight. The therapist has full control, so if the patient needs a break, the program is shut down.

"On a real-world airplane if you're taxiing and you're anxious and you want to get off, they don't stop the plane and let you disembark and in VR, all of that's possible," Hodges said.

Standard therapy, which involves physically going to the airport and getting on a plane, has a 95 percent success rate although patients sometimes need a sedative to make it through. Virtual therapy also has a 95 percent success rate and Hodges says virtual reality patients succeed without any drugs.