Overcoming your phobias through virtual reality

September 26, 2011 8:09:06 PM PDT
Overcoming your phobias -- whether it's a fear of flying, public speaking, or dizzying heights -- is a daunting challenge for most people. But you can now overcome your very real fears through virtual reality.

For 45 years, Hayward resident Kathy Milton harbored a fear of heights after falling out of a tree when she was a child. She just lived with that fear until she recently lost a job.

"The first question out of the interviewer's mouth was, 'How are you with heights?' says Milton. "And, of course, I didn't answer directly or quickly, so he naturally figured out that I did fear heights."

She turned to a special clinic at Kaiser Permanente in Fremont that uses virtual reality to help patients overcome their phobias. With the help of Dr. Elizabeth McMahon, a clinical psychologist, Milton uses headgear that feeds her visual images to simulate situations that trigger her fears.

"Virtual reality is more vivid than imagination but more controllable than real life," says McMahon.

A monitor displays what Milton sees through her goggles. She rides in a glass elevator, watching the floors go by. Then she exits to an open walkway. On the fear scale, 100 is the highest level. McMahon says a typical patient starts at 84, and over a number of sessions, will drop to 24.

"You need to find a way to face your phobia, face what terrifies you, in a way that is manageable and controlled so you're not overwhelmed and so you can lose your fear," explains McMahon. "That is where virtual reality comes in."

Imagine a person with acrophobia standing on an open walkway, looking down on the plaza at San Jose City Hall, unable to get from one point to another simply because of their fear of height.

The real moment of truth for Milton came at a BART station platform.

"So I went to the edge, and it was about a 50-foot drop off the side, and I just sat there and I wasn't fearful," recalls Milton.

Virtual reality, with guidance from McMahon, has changed Milton's life. And now Milton has a checklist of things she wants to do -- things she once feared.

"No. 1 is ride a ferris wheel," she says. "Second one is climb ladders."

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