“Last September, my husband and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary and flew from California to Vermont. This was the first time I had flown in years.”
Like many people with aviophobia, Gaustad hadn’t always been afraid of flying. “We actually flew quite a bit. But on a flight to Las Vegas, our plane hit a few air pockets… enough turbulence to throw things around a bit… and although everything turned out okay, I got real real panicky and said, ‘I’m not going to be able to do this again.'” Sure enough, Gaustad and her family traveled by car, bus or train throughout the next decade.
Knowing the anniversary trip was coming up, Gaustad decided to do something about her phobia and learned that virtual reality therapy was available through her company’s employee benefits. “I only met with Brenda seven or eight times before the therapy worked on me,” she recalls. “In fact, before the sessions were completely over, I had already booked our flights to Vermont.”
“Yes I did feel sort of weird when I wasn’t flying, like there was someting wrong with me,” Gaustad admits. “It was important that my husband understood my problem. Be patient and work through this together.”
“It started when the plane took off.”
Keely Moore isn’t afraid of a plane crash. It’s the airplane cabin closing in on her.
“I just felt kind of trapped.”
Keely suffers from panic attacks—intense unexpected episodes of fear. The attacks trigger severe physical reactions including, racing heart, chest pains, and dizziness. The attack strike terror in Keely’s mind.
“You know the fear of dying, not knowing what’s going on”
The real world situation is too overwhelming for a lot of people.
So in virtual reality, we can put them in near real-world situations, have them experience that fear, teach them coping mechanisms, also teach them that those feelings aren’t dangerous.
Keely’s nine flights virtual flights have paid off. “It just feels more like excitement than anxiety.”
For more information on Keely’s story click here.
I had a normal childhood. One of my favorite places in our hometown was our bird farm, where I thought it was very cool to go hang out with birds and touch them. I cannot imagine this anymore.
All of this was until I had a very bad experience one day. I was nine. We were in this park and someone dumped a bag of birdseed in front of me. All of a sudden there I was engulfed in a cloud of sparrows. I couldn’t see anything except brown-white feathers everywhere. And I couldn’t hear anything except for chirping, frantic wing flapping.
I started to feel like I couldn’t breathe. To me this felt like it went on for tens of minutes, even though talking to Brenda, I realized it must have actually been a couple of seconds.
I was really shaken. My parents were like, “Oh, poor baby, let’s go and take her out for some ice cream.” And we did. They sat me down and put some ice cream in front of me. And, a very bold pigeon landed in my plate and started flapping around. There were feathers everywhere and the sound that terrified me a couple of seconds ago was back.
I think that was what cemented the connection between birds and danger in my mind. I think I’ve had this phobia ever since.
How it affected Neha’s daily life
When we walk around Palo Alto, we have to take a special route to avoid houses with any chicken coops.Neha’s Boyfriend
When we walk around in the city, and you see a bird on the sidewalk, you squeeze my hand really tightly and cry.Neha’s Sister
That time you ran out of the kitchen, screaming and sweating and crying, and it was because there was a feather on the floor.Neha’s Mom
The Next Steps
My mother sent out an email to all of her doctor friends saying, “My daughter runs into traffic to escape pigeons. Can anyone help us?” The answer we got was VR therapy.
I thought, “That sounds made up, and kinda like sci-fi.”
I can deal with a penguin maybe, a video of a penguinNeha
Even as a part of the process, there was an option to stop. So I never felt like, “Oh my God, I can’t take it anymore.” It was always under control. It was never something that I felt like I had to get out of immediately.
My goal was to not have bird phobia interrupt my daily life. I wanted to walk within 10 feet of a bird.
If I’m being perfectly honest, I definitely still pay attention to birds. “Oh there’s a bird near me, I’m going to start my breathing exercises.” But, I can function like normal.
For more information on Neha’s story, click here.
By the time I decided to do Virtual Reality Therapy I had done most everything else I could possibly do that was offered. I had done:
- Cognitive Therapy
- A Fear of Flying Clinic
At the time, the closest Virtual Reality Medical Office to my home was in San Diego, an eleven-hour car ride away. I had never had a problem flying until 1994, when my family and I boarded a small, general aviation plane for a tour over the Grand Canyon. While the plane was built for a fewer amount of people, we were packed into it like sardines. The plane ride was an hour’s worth of bumps, hits and jolts. It felt like the plane wanted to drop out of the sky under the weight of its many passengers and I was in a blind panic the entire time. It was this experience that imprinted a bad belief system and distorted view of flying in my head.
When the plane finally touched down, I got out of the plane and kissed the ground. Literally, the first words that came out of my mouth were “My life has been changed forever” and for seven years, that statement was true. While I continued to fly after that incident, it was never the same. For instance, when I had travel plans that involved flying, I would begin having anticipatory anxiety about three weeks before the scheduled flight. I would lose sleep. I would have nightmares. I would obsess about the flight.
My mind couldn’t think about anything else BUT the flight. My thought process would be filled with “what if’s.” It was so bad that by the time the day of travel came around, I emotionally didn’t have anything left over for the actual flight. My desire and drive and inner-strength for flying were completely zapped and spent. There was nothing emotionally left over for me to push through the actual flight. I felt paralyzed by the fear.
On one occasion, after I had boarded a plane with my two children and just before the Flight Attendant closed the door to the aircraft, I bolted off the plane leaving my children behind to fly on without me. I will never forget the tears and look of disappointment on their faces. At that point, I stopped flying all together for a number of years. I was exhausted and I was tired of putting my family through this unforgiving process each and every time we wanted to fly someplace.
Then, I found Virtual Reality Therapy. For me, because of the nature of the feedback I received during the VRT sessions, I was able to identify my “flying rough spots” easier. Virtual Reality Therapy gave me more concrete feedback about what I, as a nervous flyer, needed to work through to begin flying again. Because the “fear” had this “invisible hold” on me, Virtual Reality Therapy gave me a realistic and physiological perspective about myself that I could grasp and wrap my mind around so that I could actually understand what it was I needed to do to progress. Working yourself out of fear to the point where you can fly without anxiety or panic is a process that is unique to each person. Whatever you do, don’t stop trying – even if it seems nothing is working. In the long run, it will all pay off.
First, you need to be committed to finding a “cure” for yourself. Fear of flying is the type of thing that will creep back into your life if you don’t keep it in check. Therefore, don’t fly less because of the fear, FLY MORE! Fly as often as you possibly can. By flying more, you will be giving yourself a chance to purge your old belief system. By flying more, you will be giving yourself the chance to put your new belief system into place. By flying more, you will be able to prove to yourself that the old belief system simply doesn’t work any longer.
Take all the “decision making” out of flying beforehand. Do whatever you can “pre-flight” to prepare so that on the day of your flight, all the choices and decisions surrounding flying are done. There’s nothing worse for a nervous flier than to have to make even the simplest decisions and/or choices on the day of travel. The nervous flier’s mind is simply too balled up in fear at that point. For example:
- The night before you travel, lay out the clothing you will be wearing on your flight.
- Be absolutely packed by the day before travel, including your Bag of Tricks, which may include:
- MP3 player packed with your favorite music
- Bottled water
- Battery powered fan
- Inspiration index cards
- Pictures of loved ones
- Reading materials
- Allow yourself plenty of time to get to the airport and checked in at the gate.
- Once at the airport, take a more positive cue from fellow travelers. Look around and notice how everybody is just going about their own business, without fear. Being around other travelers can put your “distorted view of flying” back into perspective.
- Once you have boarded, let the Flight Attendant know you are a nervous
flier and ask to be checked on from time to time.
- Now that most airplanes have sky phones on them, arrange for a family member or friend to stay by the telephone while you are in flight. If you feel restless or out-of-sorts, use the sky phone to call that person. It is a very calming thing to do.
- Ask the Flight Attendant if you can meet the pilots. Talk with the Pilots about anything that’s on your mind. Pilots and Flight Attendants are the nicest and most helpful people. Remember, the airline industry wants your business. To get it, though, they must first earn your trust and respect – and they do this by wanting to make your flight comfortable. It’s OK to lean on them.
For more information on Kathy’s story, click here.
I decided to take the VR class for both fear of flying and fear of heights. It’s something I felt I needed to do. The flying and heights have been a problem with me for almost 30 years and it was inflicting difficulties on myself in terms of traveling and my wanting to do things. I found myself eliminating a lot of the fun things I used to do. I just didn’t want to do them. And I’d find excuse for not doing them and for reasons I couldn’t go here or I couldn’t go there and then feel bad later that I did not go. so I just decided it was time to put my life on hold and work on this for a while.
We sat down and we talked about some of the things that were [plexing] me and what I needed to do as far as what I needed to do as far as the program and we started discussing what the problem was and what might have caused it. And from there I learned to do diaphragmic breathing as a means to ease my fears and stress levels. Then we began to use VR introductory type of things where I was In a plane.
I learned the breathing techniques to go along with the actual flying of the VR I had gotten to a point where I was absolutely unable even want to get on a plane at all from small props to multi probs to jets to anything.
I was preparing myself for a trip back east, and that was the thing, I just wanted to feel like I could go back to NY state and feel lets say reasonably comfortable, maybe not as comfortable as someone who’s not afraid of flying by with far less stress than what I had had in previous years. And I relied on all the techniques that I had learned in VR class and the tapes that I played in my mind and and the visualizations that I did and it made the flight that would have probably had me right up on the wall into something that I was able to tolerate and get through and felt pretty good about having got there and then on the return even less stressful.
I felt that the program was far and above better than what I had expected I really did not know what to expect when I came in. But for me it was a life saver, in that I was then able to go about and do other things not just from flying but other things that had a fear factor of heights and of that nature and so it was powerful.
I have one final goal in flying that I want to do and that is to work my way back up into a propeller aircraft which was the reason I got into this clinic in the first place, the fear of flying as a result of propeller aircraft problem.
Suggestions from Kevin:
You have to do more than just come into the clinic, the clinic will just direct you, but you have to make extra efforts cause if you just rely on the clinic, you’ll get something out of it but not exactly what you want, you will fall short.
I think that in time this is gonna pass, I got the best of it, I would suggest to anyone who has a fear of flying the first step is to recognize what it is, fear of flying, that’s the phobia, then set the time aside to get it taken care of, don’t want as long as I did get it taken care of, I think this is a good place to do it.
For more information on Kevin’s story, click here.
It is nearly impossible to get anywhere in California without driving, even in major cities. Stephanie Wall, a 23-year-old resident of Southern California, knows this only too well. Just two days before she was scheduled to begin college in Colorado, Wall was involved in a traffic accident that caused her to stop driving for what she thought would be forever. On a hot summer day, a teenager slammed into Wall’s sport utility vehicle on a freeway in Denver, rolling it over. Wall was rushed to intensive care. As she recovered in the hospital, she thought about her future with driving. “I didn’t want to freak out and get into another accident,” she said.
Two months after her accident, Wall returned home to California to begin the long process of physical therapy. While her body recovered and improved, her fear did not. “I would be in the car with [my] Mom and would get really anxious, sweating, and I would jump,” Wall says. “I would even shut my eyes sometimes when I saw a car coming at me in the same sort of way as [in] the accident.”
After two years of enduring this fear, Wall was referred by her psychologist to Dr. Brenda Wiederhold at the Virtual Reality Medical Center (VRMC) in San Diego, California. At VRMC, Wiederhold uses a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy and VR-enhanced cognitive-behavioral therapy (VR-CBT) to help patients with specific driving phobias, fear of driving related to panic disorder and agoraphobia, or PTSD due to motor vehicle accidents. Over the last decade, psychologists around the world, including Wiederhold, have been using VR therapy to treat a variety of phobias including fear of heights, public speaking, spiders, flying, medical procedures, and enclosed spaces. However, Wiederhold was one of the first to use VR to treat PTSD due to motor vehicle accidents.
At VRMC, Wall did not enter VR during her first two treatment sessions. Instead, Wiederhold taught her relaxation techniques (e.g. deep breathing, visual physiological feedback, etc.) and cognitive techniques that would help her cope with anxiety when she was confronted with her fear. In subsequent sessions, Wall was placed in the virtual driving environment that included a real automobile seat and seatbelt, steering wheel, gas and brake pedals, and a vibrating platform to simulate movement. The environment allowed Wiederhold to change what Wall was seeing with the press of a key. Situations included varying traffic and weather conditions, a bustling commercial center, a residential area, bridges, mountain roads, and a highway. Over time, Dr. Wiederhold adjusted the scenes, adding speeding cars, pedestrians, rainstorms, and lifelike sounds to make the exposure more realistic.”It was obviously a computerized environment,” said Wall, who now tackles Southern California’s freeways. “But still, it felt real. The drivers would even yell at me, sometimes in Spanish, and one time I started yelling back.” Wall’s final goal was to drive to school 20 miles away, on the freeway.
“When we started getting in traffic on the [virtual] freeway my heart would start racing like I was having a mild anxiety attack,” Wall recalled. “The noises bothered me, too. You could be at a stoplight and they’d have a fender bender next to you and that sound really got to me.”
With VR, “you can have an accident and not get hurt,” Dr. Wiederhold said. “People who are afraid fo the freeway say, ‘Oh my God, this is dangerous.’ I get them to stop the thought and think instead, ‘Yes, I’m sweating, but I’m still in control.'”
After 15 sessions with Wiederhold, Wall is back behind the wheel, for the most part comfortably. “I still use the breathing techniques to this day,” she says. “I find comfort in that. Knowing that I can encounter any situation, anywhere, and I’ll be able to handle it. That makes me a better driver.” Though her original goal was 20 miles on the freeway, Wall now drives 20, 30, or even 40 miles away, allowing her to get to school and physical therapy on her own. She now says that she prefers driving herself. “It has become ‘me’ time,” she says. Walls is still in physical therapy for her injuries from the accident, but she has gone back tot school and recently bought a condo. Her new goal is to drive back to Colorado and finish her trip to Denver. “Someday I’ll accomplish that,” she says, “and it will be with the tools that Dr. Wiederhold taught me.”
Sourced from Dr. Brenda K Wiederhold’s book, Virtual Healing.
For more information on Stephanie’s story, click here.
We all know how upsetting it can be to be scared of someone or something. In fact, one La Jolla man says his fear was affecting his job and life. So, he decided to take control and fought his fear in a way that very few people have done.
“I would become very anxious, light headed, lots of perspiration,” said Ronald Davidson. “I thought I was going to pass out I was some nervous. People are going to think i’m crazy. How am I going to explain this?”
Fears of flying, spiders and heights. Most of us are afraid of something, but when our fear becomes overwhelming it can paralyze us and change the way we live our everyday lives.
“I’ve been in the middle of a speech and was almost so disabled by anxiety. I was almost not able to carry on.”
Davidson’s fear of public speaking affected his ability to do his job, and his confidence in life.
“I’ve had a couple of times where I thought I was going to pass out. I was so nervous it’s not a good feeling.”
“Phobias are the number one mental illness, even more common than depression. But they’re also the most treatable mental illness,” Doctor Brenda Wiederhold.
Psychologists today treat phobia by having their patients imagine what they’re afraid of then they jump straight into real life situations. But a medical center in Sorrento Valley has virtually opened a door to a new world of therapy.
“What we’re able to do with the VR is to take more systematic baby steps. Because you don’t want the person to feel some anxiety… you don’t want to overwhelm them. That can actually make them avoid even more.”
The therapist controls the environment and monitors the patient’s heart rate, breathing and mind activity.
“They’re actually feeling the vibrations, they’re hearing the sounds they’re seeing the visuals so all of their senses are stimulated.” said Wiederhold.
“I’m fairly skeptical so if it works with me it’ll work with anybody,” said Davidson.
The future of VR is virtually limitless. Right now they are treating people with eating disorders, ADHD and anger management. And some therapists are even experimenting with treating schizophrenia.
“You put them in the Virtual world to make them understand that those voices are just in the virtual world and you get them to slowly change their reality,” said Wiederhold.
Virtual therapy is in its beginning stages, but it has helped at least one patient with his fear of public speaking and changed his life.
“It helps you in so many other ways when you gain self confidence. You faced something that you found very fearful and you know I probably could have gotten through the rest of my life with out doing this… I could have skated around it, I have in the past. But it feels so good for a change to confront it and to over come it.”
For more information on Ron’s story, click here.
Linda Manassee Buell was a prisoner of Pomerado Road.
Panic attacks, fear of open spaces and fear of driving kept her captive, at least in her mind. The thought of venturing beyond an eight-mile stretch of Pomerado Road in Poway terrified her.
Buell, 46, managed to overcome her fears—with help from a tech-savvy psychologist and an innovative treatment that uses the same kind of virtual reality technology found in video arcades.
To help Buell conquer her phobias, San Diego psychologist Brenda Wiederhold strapped goggles on her patient then immersed her in a digital world full of the very things that scared her most.
Buell had never heard of virtual reality treatment until she called Brenda Wiederhold’s office. Even hearing Wiederhold describe over the telephone one of the treatments—driving a car in the virtual world and getting stuck in traffic jam in tunnel—made Buell nervous. She knew how terrifying something like that in real life could be.
On the first visit, Wiederhold plunked Buell down in the middle of a virtual plaza surrounded by old European buildings.
The first thing Buell did was look for a way out.
And that was exactly what Wiederhold would have predicted.
When Buell did find her way out, it led to an open grassy field that was just as nerve-wracking. She quickly returned to the plaza because, she explained, “there were people there, and I figured I could ask them for help.”
Buell worked her way up to virtual driving in later therapy sessions.
She donned the virtual reality goggles, sat behind an actual steering wheel and pressed her foot on an actual accelerator until she came to a small tunnel.
“My first reaction was to look for the exit to the tunnel,” Buell said. “I wanted to see the hole at the other end.”
She made it through.
The more Buell exposed herself to her fears in these virtual worlds, the more confident, and less anxious she became—until she got to the point where she could venture, little by little, into the real world.
Her sessions ended, but Buell sees her recovery as ongoing.
She credits Wiederhold’s treatment as much as the virtual reality with helping her. “It’s a tool,” Buell said. “Brenda doesn’t focus on the technology. She uses the technology as a part of the whole.”
For more information on Linda’s story, click here.
Exposure therapy, a form of cognitive behavioral therapy, involves subjecting patients to increasing amounts of things they fear, or otherwise hope to avoid. It is one of the great success stories of mental health, and it’s not just for phobias…
Recently, a more palatable route has been introduced with virtual reality. The Virtual Reality Medical Center in La Jolla, for example, offers VR therapy for all manner of fears. Heights, driving, needles and blood, spiders, enclosed spaces—you name it, they treat it. First steps in traditional phobia treatment sometimes involve imagining fearful scenarios, but a patient’s mind is naturally resistant to those thoughts and will go to some lengths to avoid fleshing out terrifying visions. Virtual reality scenarios have proved useful in social phobias, wherein patients have a debilitating fear of interacting with other people.
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