Hi, I'm Luke, and I'm scared of flying. That's how therapy starts, right? Well, not any more – things are changing. Now when you see a therapist, you can do all the comfy chair, overly chatty stuff, but then mix things up by putting on a virtual reality headset in an attempt to help you deal with your biggest fears. That's why I've spent a couple of evenings in the office of phobia-specialising therapist Michael Carthy.
As I say, I'm scared of flying. Not just a little bit nervous, either, but full-on terrified. I've cried on planes. (Not as a kid, but as a fully grown adult. More than once, too.) I've been comforted by cabin crew, my long-suffering partner, and even complete strangers. I've tried taking sleeping pills and reading self-help books. I've even spoken to pilots in a bid to calm my fears, but nothing has helped.
I like heights. I love rollercoasters. Heck, I even get a kick out of being in helicopters. But aeroplanes? No thanks. It's an irrational fear, I know, but it's one that I've so far been unable to rationalise. Can VR help where everything else has failed? I donned a headset to find out.
What's it all about?
I'm here to overcome a crippling fear of flying but VR therapy has much broader capabilities. Whether it's public speaking, spiders or heights that get you sweaty, there are specialist VR experiences to help. It's not something you can administer yourself at home, this needs to be professionally drip fed to you by a qualified specialist.
It turns out things don't need to be photorealistic for my fear of flying to be piqued
"I use this technology as a surgeon uses a scalpel," Carthy told me as I opened up about my phobia. "I don't use it willy-nilly, I use it when it's needed and when it's going to have a big impact on what you're experiencing."
During my two therapy sessions, around a quarter of the two and a half hours was spent inside a virtual reality headset. It's far more of a complementary tool than a standalone solution. This sparing use gives it even more of an impact though. You don't become desensitised to the virtual situations, instead it helps you face those moments of discomfort intermittently, and with purpose.
It doesn't matter if, like me, you're a bit of a cynic either. VR therapy targets the subconscious part of your mind. That's the hippyish sounding part that refuses to rationalise, but which, with careful training, can – it's claimed – be manipulated.
"It's a way for us to use real-life environments that the unconscious mind can't tell whether it's real or fake. Whether it's fantasy or reality," Carthy explained. "It allows you to immerse yourself in a situation where you are maybe not going into it in the same way as you always have. You don't set yourself up to fail."
Time to panic
Having spilled my soul out, it was time to enter the virtual realm. That involved putting on a Samsung Gear VR with a Samsung Galaxy S6 inside – so far, so normal. Once a couple of biometric sensors had been attached to my fingers in order to monitor my anxiety levels though, it was time for the process to begin.
Instantly I was surprised by just how much my mind and body reacted to the VR experience. It turns out things don't need to be photorealistic for my fear of flying to be piqued, which is good, because the graphics here are PlayStation 2 standard.
I was panicking.
I couldn't stop my virtual self from moving down the gangway towards the plane. I couldn't reach out and touch the plane's door like I have to in real life, and I couldn't grab the armrest when shortly after take-off turbulence kicked in.
Within minutes, the subconscious part of my mind was in full on fight or flight fear mode, despite the conscious part being acutely aware of the comfortable seat I was in, the therapist talking to me, and the Gear VR strap pinching my ear. A lot of this comes down to the sophistication of the software that developer Psious had running the show.
Samsung's headgear might be widely available, but this specialist software is anything but a cheap Oculus Store download. It's something the therapist is always in control of.
There's a lot they can control too. Whatever phase of the flying process ignites your fear – be it in the taxi to the airport, waiting at the boarding gate, simply sitting on the plane or shaking during a bumpy patch – you can experience it. Add in the ability to instantly change the weather, time of day, seat you're in and chirpiness of the pilots on the tannoy and you can really attune the experience to what worries you most.
Relive the experience
As uncomfortable as the first VR session made me feel – the recordings showed my anxiety levels were constantly up and peaked at a lofty 2.57 – when I was handed the Gear VR for a second time, I was excited. In the time between sessions, I'd been taught how to retake control using my body posture, facial expressions and breathing. I was eager to see if I could put into practice the tactics I'd learnt.
Take two was far more successful. There was still considerable fear, but with careful breathing I kept my anxiety levels to a top end of 1.17. A big difference in just 90 minutes. Another day, another trip into the VR headset, this time after a bit of hypnotherapy (which is not the foolish nonsense I'd assumed), and my anxiety stats were cruising down at a lowly 0.85. Yes there were spikes, but overall I felt relatively relaxed.
This is the benefit of VR therapy, it helps provide a base level for your fear, and one that can be used, not only as a means of practice, but as a way of showing your progress and putting your therapy-based learnings into practice.
"With VRT, you can find a place to practise the things you're in control of," Carthy explained. "It's the perfect step between the therapist's room and the real world. Before VRT came along, I would have to use visualisation techniques for this. VRT takes away the ownership from the client, they don't have to do anything apart from keep their eyes open."
All too quickly, it was time to board a plane. Destination: Berlin; flight time: less than two hours, also known as far too fucking long. It's not just the flight time itself that worries me though.
Usually a couple of days before flying the nerves and apprehension start. This time, however, everything was much milder. Even as I approached the airport, the sweats and palpitations were yet to swing into full effect – perhaps this VR therapy would work after all.
Check-in handled, pass checked, it was time to board. Engine notes rising.. speed increasing.. ground disappearing.. it all happened without the usual panic. During the flight, and using an Apple Watch to track my heart rate, I was amazed. I was actually managing this. Sure, there were still nerves, there was still the occasional pang of fear, but it wasn't crippling like it has so often been in the past.
My heart rate, which usually rests around 59, was up at 95, but I was happy with that. A little bit of fear is normal and I felt like I had wrestled back control of the situation. Taking slow, deep breaths, smiling like a loon and holding my shoulders back, I didn't feel afraid anymore. I felt comfortable.
I also found myself remembering the VR experiences, the trouble-free turbulence and the unemotional face of the digital character next to me. It all helped. After 30 minutes of counting the seconds of every inhaled breath, I genuinely started to enjoy the flight. I forgot about all the coping mechanisms, and, for the first time in a long time, I was able to do something other than grip the armrest (or the arm of the person next to me). I watched TV on my iPad.
Throughout the whole cruising phase of the flight – usually my most worried phase – my heart rate remained in the 70s and 80s. Even when some slight turbulence hit I didn't feel worried. VR therapy had worked.
Am I cured?
I went into this whole VR therapy process more than a little sceptical. I've been so engrossed in my fear for so many years that I couldn't see how a technology I've so far found underwhelming could have such a profound effect. I'm more than happy to have been mistaken.
VR isn't the star of the show. That honour goes to my brilliant therapist. It is a hugely helpful and complementary component though. So it's not the sole solution, but without it I wouldn't be okay with flying, at least not this quickly.
Now to book that round-the-world ticket.
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