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Virtual reality frees some from their phobias
ATLANTA (CNN) -- To conquer fears that have held them captive, some of the millions of Americans who suffer from phobias enter a cyber world full of whatever they dread the most.
"Everytime I get on a plane I think I am going to die," said Melanie Metcalf. "It is like meeting your own mortality every time you fly, and it's a frustrating experience."
Metcalf decided to seek help after sitting home alone on New Year's Eve 2000 while her husband, once again, jetted off to vacation with their friends.
She sought a new form of therapy that exposed her to her fear with the help of a computer.
Three-dimensional images, stereo sound
"People have this fear structure in their brain that needs to be activated by putting yourself in the fearful environment," said Elana Zimand of Virtually Better, which has recreated cyber environments such as elevators, bridges, storms and even Vietnam.
"You can actually get used to that situation that was a previously frightening situation for you," Zimand said.
The patient wears a mask that plays three-dimensional video images, while stereo sounds help create a scene that is lifelike. That immerses the phobic person in a stressful situation without, for instance, having to actually walk on a bridge, climb a real mountain or speak to an audience.
"I think virtual reality exposure works, because we are tapping enough of their fear cues and bringing up that fear memory," said clinical psychologist Barbara Rothbaum.
A psychologist is also involved in the process as patients incorporate relaxation and breathing techniques while confronting their fears.
A $1,200 bill
Most people require a minimum of eight sessions at $150 each before they are ready to face their fears in the real world.
Psychologists said this form of exposure is an easier means of controlling the situation and keeping confidentiality.
And the help Metcalf has received from the virtual therapy of flying means she won't have to spend another vacation home alone.
Virtually Better, Inc. Home Page
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