New virtual reality technique helps conquer fear of flying, say researchers

August 03, 2000

After eight sessions, participants showed a significant reduction in anxiety and fear

WASHINGTON -- An estimated 10-25 percent of the population suffers from fear of flying. This fear can cause overwhelming anxiety for those who have to travel for business or need to fly to reach a vacation destination. Now, those white knucklers can overcome their anxiety of flying by participating in therapy using a new tool called Virtual Reality Exposure (VRE). Virtual Reality allows a user to be an active participant within a computer-generated three-dimensional virtual world that changes in a natural way with a person's head and body motion. Findings from this study will be presented at the American Psychological Association's 108th Annual Convention in Washington, DC.

To show how effective VRE is in reducing fear and anxiety when flying, psychologists Samantha Smith, Ph.D., of Walter Reed Army Hospital and Barbara O. Rothbaum, Ph.D., of Emory University School of Medicine, enrolled 45 participants (ages 24-69) with a fear of flying in three different experimental conditions. The participants had either been diagnosed with a specific phobia or agoraphobia with or without panic attacks that were triggered by flying.

Four sessions of anxiety management training were given to the treatment participants followed either by exposure to VRE (n=15) or going to an actual airplane at the airport (standard exposure or SE) (n=15). Participants in the waitlist control group received no treatment (n=15).

Those in the VRE treatment experienced virtual reality by sitting in an airplane, takeoffs, landings and flying in both calm and stormy weather. Those in the SE treatment traveled to the airport, sat on a stationary airplane and imagined takeoffs, cruising and landings.

After eight sessions over a six-week period, a flight on a commercial airline was offered to determine the participants' willingness to fly and their anxiety level during the flight. The flyers in both the VRE and SE treatments were found to be equally effective in decreasing their anxiety symptoms as measured by standardized questionnaires and by increasing the number of flights on a real airplane following the treatment.

The treated participants reported significant reductions in their apprehensions about flying as well as equal satisfaction with both the VRE and SE treatments. And when wait-listed participants were allowed to choose which treatment they would receive, the overwhelming majority chose the VRE treatment. "Six months after the treatment," said the authors, "93 percent or 14 out of the 15 participants of both the VRE and SE participants had flown."

"The advantages of VRE over SE," said the authors, "are that VRE can be done in a clinical setting (someone's office) where SE can be very costly and inconvenient. You need to travel to an airport, then be able to schedule an actual airplane flight. Plus, it takes longer than a regular hour therapy session." Furthermore, VRE allows the therapist to manipulate situations to best suit the patient, for example, "to repeatedly fly the virtual airplane within one session or to experience takeoffs, landings and turbulence," said the authors.
Presentation: "A Controlled Study of Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy for the Fear of Flying," Samantha Smith, Ph.D., Walter Reed Army Hospital, Barbara O. Rothbaum, Ph.D., Emory University School of Medicine, Larry Hodges, Ph.D., and Jeong Hwan Lee, Georgia Institute of Technology, Larry Price, Ph.D., The Psychological Corporation, San Antonio, TX, Session 1134, Friday, August 4, 11:00 AM -- 12:50 PM, Grand Hyatt Washington Hotel, Roosevelt and Wilson Rooms

Samantha Smith, Ph.D., can be reached at 202-782-8934 or at
Barbara O. Rothbaum, Ph.D., can be reached at 404-778-3875 or at

(Full text available from the APA Public Affairs Office)

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 159,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 59 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

Contact: Pam Willenz, Public Affairs Office
202-336-5700 (until 8/2)
202-962-4285 (between 8/3 -- 8/8)

American Psychological Association

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