Psychologists are using virtual reality in combination with cognitive-behavioral therapy as
a tool to help people overcome phobias.
BY LEA WINERMAN
Print version: page 87
For Veronica Jones, the last straw was canceling her anniversary trip to Cancun. A 32-year-old
attorney, Jones (a pseudonym) had always been a fearful flyer, but she'd managed to travel the
world anyway: Doping herself up on Benadryl, she says, helped lessen her panic.
But over the years her fears worsened, and eventually over-the-counter remedies were no longer
enough to overcome them. On a two-leg trip from her home near Washington, D.C., to Argentina
to visit her in-laws, she'd nearly insisted her husband leave her at the airport in Miami. In the end
she got on the plane, but the experience was so traumatic she vowed not to fly again.
So when her husband surprised her with tickets to Cancun--and a reservation at the Ritz-
Carlton--she reluctantly asked him to cancel the trip.
"That's when I knew I needed to deal with this," she says. "When it started to affect not just me,
but also my marriage."
For help, she turned to Curt Buermeyer, PhD, a psychologist who helps clients overcome phobias
and other anxiety disorders. Buermeyer and his colleague Keith Saylor, PhD, use traditional
cognitive-behavioral therapy methods, but with a high-tech twist. Their practice in the suburbs of
Washington, D.C., is one of about 30 around the country that use virtual reality--3-D computer
graphics that simulate environments in the real world--to help clients confront their fears.
For Jones, that meant she could take "virtual" flights--via a video screen in a helmet and a
vibrating chair--in the safety of Buermeyer's office before stepping foot on a real plane.
"The important thing to realize is that virtual reality is a
in cognitive-behavioral therapy,"
Saylor says. "It's not the answer in and of itself."
It is, though, proving to be a useful tool--dozens of studies over the past decade have shown that
virtual reality can help people overcome fear of spiders, heights, storms, flying and even public
And recently, researchers have been investigating ways to make virtual reality even more "real"
and the therapy even more effective.