How to cure a fear of flying: virtual reality headsets offer alternative to hypnotherapy, breathing exercises and tapes

Hongkongers are addicted to travelling. The government reported at June’s International Travel Expo that total resident departures in 2016 was more than 91 million, which is an average of 12.5 journeys per person out of Hong Kong.

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About 12 per cent of those journeys were made by air. Hong Kong International Airport said in the month of July, the number of passengers it served increased by three per cent to 6.5 million compared to the previous year. This comes as a third runway is being built to cope with future air traffic demand.

Flying is considered one of the safest forms of travel, yet, why are so many of us are still scared of it?

There are more receptors in the brain for things that threaten survival than there are for pleasure, so even one experience of intense fear can wipe out the effect of 20 years of safe flying

Melanie Bryant

Getting reliable figures on the number of aviophobics is difficult. What we do know is that it’s common. FlyFright, a website dedicated to helping people overcome fear of flying, reports that 12.6 per cent of Americans are afflicted.

“Many people self-medicate with alcohol and drugs rather than coming in for treatment,” says Dr Melanie Bryant, a clinical psychologist and hypnotherapist at Mind Matters in Hong Kong. “But a lot of people come to me with this fear only when it starts to affect their professional life, when they’re losing opportunities because of it.”

Hypnotherapy – also called cognitive behavioural therapy – is used to induce an altered state of consciousness to break long-term habits. Some people fly comfortably for years, but they begin to feel vulnerable as they grow older or after having a child, says Bryant. Developing a fear of flying can also happen after just one bad experience on a flight.

“You can hit really bad turbulence and from that point on be terrified of flying,” she says. “The reason is that there are more receptors in the brain for things that threaten survival than there are for pleasure, so even one experience of intense fear can wipe out 20 years of safe flying.”

A spate of high-profile crashes and air disasters – such as the March 2014 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 followed by the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in July that same year – can also spark a general fear of flying in a person.

“A few of my clients’ trigger incident was watching the news,” says Sonia Samtani, a hypnotherapist at the All About You Wellness Centre in Hong Kong. “Seeing so many negative statements about flying can produce fear, and especially if you’re already feeling vulnerable, it’s easy to associate flying with danger,” she says.

If you have a mild fear of flying, a good start is to reassure yourself by looking at the facts about how safe it actually is. In 2016, there were 3.5 billion flights taken worldwide, with a mere 325 deaths, according to the Aviation Safety Network. That’s one death per 10 million passengers.

However, a phobia of flying is something quite different. “A phobia is illogical, and you don’t know why it’s happened,” says Samtani, who looks into a client’s history for a trigger for a phobia. “But fear is physiological – you can feel it – and the treatment is shorter because the client almost always knows the moment it first happened, so we return to that moment, and release the toxicity of that moment.”

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In fact, most sufferers don’t have a fear of flying at all, but rather an aversion to a very specific aspect of the flying experience. “For some people it’s take-off, landing, or turbulence, or the whole idea of going on a plane,” she says.

Samtani first targets exactly what the fear is before using “emotional empowerment” techniques such as tapping, chanting and breathing exercises to help her clients cope with, or contain their fear. She also gives them recordings to help reprogramme the subconscious mind before a flight.

Bryant also uses hypnosis and says it takes only one or two sessions to cure someone of a fear of flying, but she hopes to bring something more technologically advanced to Hong Kong soon, in the form of virtual reality (VR) headsets.

“It takes you into an alternate reality – a 3D environment – where you feel like you’re there,” she says of an idea to mimic the environment on board an airline. “I will be able to observe how they react emotionally and mentally when their fear starts developing.”

A similar technique has long existed, where patients are taken into a mock plane so the therapist can see how they react, but now the experience is being heightened in America with the help of VR. US company Virtually Better has its clinical psychologists use VR to expose patients to their feared situation.

“We use a Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET) Protocol,” says director Dawn McDaniel.

VRET is a framework that allows the patient to face their triggers – in this case, being in a plane, or take-off, or landing – in a safe environment whose intensity and duration is controlled by a therapist. “We often ask about a patient’s sense of presence in the environment and we almost always receive high ratings,” she says. The company develops its own VR environments for those with a fear of heights, public speaking, and even creates VR war zones for ex-military sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder.

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For now, Virtually Better is using 3D video headsets, but next year it plans to upgrade to the more advanced HTC Vive headsets.

VR is beginning to take hold in medicine; Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s Department of Rehabilitation Sciences is already exploring how to use VR to ease stroke suffers with cognitive problems back into real-life scenarios. Meanwhile, the global market for VR in health care is expected to reach US$3.8 billion by 2020, according to Global Industry Analysts, who also predict that Asia-Pacific will be the fastest growing market.

With new, more immersive technology on the way, Hong Kong aviophobics may soon be able to face their fears in 360 degrees.

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