Nothing to Fear from Virtual Reality?

If you’re human, you’re afraid of something. Fear is an emotion common to all people, regardless of demographic differences.

But some fears are irrational. For example, at least one in eight Americans is deathly afraid to fly in an airplane. Yet more Americans are killed in car accidents every three months than have died in commercial airplane crashes over the past 60 years — worldwide. The most common “treatment” for pre-flight anxiety is alcohol, which explains why airport bars open early.

These days, a number of careers require at least some long-distance travel. Telling your boss you would rather take a train than a plane to an upcoming conference would probably mean stating your willingness to spend some vacation time.

Irrational fears come in several flavors. The three most common phobias are simple or common phobia, social phobia and agoraphobia. Simple or common phobia is an unreasonable fear of animals, insects or natural elements like storms, water, heights and closed spaces. Fear of germs, odors or illnesses would also fall into this category. I have the fear of heights. It’s especially pronounced when I’m standing near an edge of a high place, even with a guardrail or half a wall in front of me. (I had a great time walking around inside and outside the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica!)

Social phobias, as the name implies, involve fear of contact with crowds or intimate social situations. People with these conditions have no confidence with strangers because they fear they are being harshly judged. Agoraphobia is generally defined as fear of open or crowded spaces.

Now, as you read this, I’m sure you are amazed at how many of these fears you can identify with. Most people acknowledge they have fears that are out of control, unreasonable or unexplainable. But just because you realize something is there doesn’t make it go away. Phobias can grow to the point of becoming debilitating and interfere with daily life.

Symptoms of common phobias include hyperventilation, sweating, feeling faint, fast heartbeat and hot flashes. In severe cases, these symptoms can occur when the person is merely thinking about, or simply standing close to, the feared object. Social-phobia symptoms include fear of saying something to embarrass yourself in front of other people. In severe cases, some people take refuge in alcohol; others avoid all social situations. (Avoidance, like alcohol, offers a short-term solution while making the problem much worse over the long haul.)

Agoraphobia symptoms are panic attacks and fear of going anywhere or doing anything. Agoraphobics are sometimes housebound — they can’t bring themselves to walk out the door for fear of their own fear.

Other debilitating symptoms of phobias include difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, inability to concentrate, constant fatigue, lack of pleasure and feelings of worthlessness. If unaddressed, phobias can lead to clinical depression.

At this point, I’m beginning to fear that my readers are thinking, “Why is Brother John, the Register’s Internet specialist, going on and on about phobias?”

The answer is: because psychotherapists are using computer technology to treat the condition — in the form of virtual reality.

In the past, therapists gradually exposed their clients to feared objects or situations directly, teaching them how to tolerate, rather than run from, their fears. If you were afraid of birds, your therapist would first show you pictures of birds and then move on to touching bird feathers. Finally, you would be taken to a park and taught to feed the birds, staying put even as they swarmed around you.

Well, today, that same process can be done using virtual reality. There’s no need to go to the park — or to a crowded place, or to the top of a tall building — since those situations can be so realistically re-created. The patient sits next to a computer and puts on a headset that provides 3-D sights and recorded sounds of their feared place or object. (Maybe someday they’ll even throw in the smells of the place you’re virtually visiting — Disney World already does this in its 3-D film attractions.) The psychotherapist operates the software while providing counseling. Each virtual-reality session lasts about an hour, with desired results achieved in anywhere from eight to 10 sessions.

So it is that technology makes exposure therapy faster and less costly. Instead of a therapist accompanying a patient to the airport, the airport comes to the office. This gives the therapist control over the virtual environment.

A company called Virtually Better, on the Internet at, developed virtual reality therapy, which is now offered in a dozen states. Virtually Better has a virtual elevator, bridge, storm, audience, Vietnam environments, malls and streets. “Other phobias, such as insects or needles, are easier for therapists to handle without the use of computers and motion chairs,” says Ken Graap, the company’s president and chief executive officer.

In our flying example, patients now sit in airplane-style chairs and wear virtual-reality masks while therapists run tailor-made programs that reproduce the sights, sounds and motions of air travel. Mark Frazier, a clinical psychologist at Virtual Therapy Associates in Miami, says this type of therapy is like an IMAX theater, immersing the client in the sensory stimuli of the re-created situation.

If you’re among the millions of Americans who find a phobia holding them back from doing things they’d really like to do, you might consider virtual therapy. If you have health insurance that includes psychotherapy coverage, there’s a good chance you’ll be reimbursed for at least a portion of your treatment. Don’t be afraid to try — you have nothing to fear but fear itself!

Brother John Raymond, co-founder of the

Monks of Adoration, writes

from Venice, Florida.

Monthly Web Picks

I usually select a theme for my Catholic website picks. This time I thought I would do some random surfing, using Google phrase searches, just for a change of pace.

Search for “Catholic movies online,” and the website of the Oklahoma Knights of Columbus pops up: Under its “Music-Videos-Fun” category, you can find Christian music Mp3s, Christian movies (they now offer more than 30 online videos), flash games, e-cards, a cookbook and something called “Fun in Numbers.”

In searching for “Catholic fun,” I came upon the Poor Clare Sisters in Spokane, Wash. Their “Joy Notes: A Weekly Dose of Fun and Inspiration” at caught my attention. They also have put together a Year of the Eucharist page at I also happened to notice the promotion of a new book by St. Clare Sister Patricia Proctor, 201 Inspirational Stories of the Eucharist, to which our own Brother Mark contributed a story.

In searching for “Catholic trivia,” I came across “Roman Catholicism Quizzes” at y/roman_catholicism.html. For each quiz, you can find out its difficulty, how many times it’s been played, when it was put online and who the author is. And if you don’t like any of them, you can create your own free daily trivia tournament. There are currently 12 quizzes on the opening page and another 11 in subcategories.

In Googling “Catholic musings,” I came upon St. Blog’s Parish. It managed to rank first on the Christianity Blog Rings directory at with links to 464 Catholic web logs. Other rings of possible interest include “Catholic Moms on the Internet,” “CIN Bloggers,” “Eastern Catholic,” “Blessed Virgin Mary,” “Mary Coredemptrix” and “Perpetual Divine Mercy Crusade” blogs. If that’s not enough to choose from, you can search for more Catholic blogs among the 250 remaining.