Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Face Flying Fears, Virtually

A virtual way of conquering the fear of flying—without leaving the ground.

Taking an airplane flight may be safer than crossing the street, but it still strikes terror in the hearts of 10 to 20 percent of Americans. Until recently, the only effective way to conquer this phobia was to actually get on a plane while accompanied by a therapist—a costly process. But researchers at Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a virtual reality program that promises to help people overcome their flying anxieties without ever leaving the ground.

The therapist-administered program, which runs on a PC, allows users to sit on a "virtual airplane" with the engines off or on, taxi around the airport, take off and land, and even endure turbulence and thunderstorms. It presents realistic sound effects and clouds, as well as a view of the ground below. (There's no in-flight movie, however.) For added realism, clients are strapped into an actual airplane seat, where they can practice traditional anxiety management techniques such as breathing exercises and thought stopping.

Evaluations suggest that it is more effective than relaxation techniques alone. And it offers a distinct advantage over real flying, notes Emory psychologist Barbara Olasov Rothbaum, who helped develop the therapy. "In virtual reality, you can take off and land as many times as you want—all in the space of a regular therapy session."