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Flying anxiety is fairly common – from full-fledged phobias to others who just feel uneasy for various reasons. A lot of people just assume that flying fear relates to something bad happening, like crashing, but more often than not, it actually relates to a fear of feeling trapped, panicking, and losing control.

We work with a lot of clients at our practice who are afraid to fly – and one of the most effective treatments for this type of anxiety is exposure – a process where you literally expose yourself to what you fear, in a gradual, step-wise way, so that you learn that in most situations, you’re safe. So ideally, this means visiting the airport, spending time there, sitting on a plane getting used to it, spending lots of time flying back and forth working on calming yourself down, which obviously isn’t ideal or doable for most people.

So how do we get around this? In comes virtual reality. By using some pretty simple technology, we’ve been able to simulate a real enough experience so that people can do their treatment from the comfort of their own home.

Meet Kate* (not her real name). Kate’s flying anxiety has been pretty extreme at times, “it’s been a massive hindrance in my life”. She says she’s avoided flying for the past three years. “My flying anxiety is mainly based around claustrophobia and not being able to escape from the situation. I had such bad experiences flying where I panicked and felt sick so I was at the point I’d avoid it”.

Using a cardboard VR headset, a smart phone, and 360-degree videos, we sourced a video that allowed for a more immersive experience than simply watching Youtube clips of take offs and landings. We worked through the basic exposure protocol in sessions; note: this is an important step, if you’re doing exposure it’s crucial that you’re doing it correctly with the help of someone who is qualified to do it. Kate was then able to take the headset home and view the 360-degree video in her own time in the weeks leading up to her flight. “I found it easy to use and just made it part of my mindfulness routine. I wouldn’t feel nervous right at the start, in fact, I’d try to find a time where I wasn’t feeling nervous to start. The anxiety would start to rise during the video and when it would get to a certain stage I would stop the video and practice my mindfulness until my anxiety had lessened and then restart the video. The more I did it the longer I could watch the videos without getting anxious”.

Ultimately, the best exposure for phobias is “in-vivo” – real life. My experience as a therapist, however, is that a lot of people drop out of exposure therapy because it’s just too hard. Kate says “The fact that I could do it at home was the big selling point for me! I’m the least anxious when I am at home and I needed that to be able to calm myself down to start with”.

Kate recently took a flight, the first in a long time. “the VR work helped easy my anticipation of flying. I was able to take it in my stride a little more”.

So far, we’ve used this technology for phobias relating to electrical storms, boats, and flying, and the scope for this is huge. Watch this space!

*Full consent was given from Kate, not her real name, to have her experiences shared in this piece. Care was taken to not include any information that would be identifying.