Now patients are confronting these types of fears with the help of virtual reality, The Early Show medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay reports.
Charlice Noble-Jones experienced the horror of the Sept. 11 attack on New York's Twin Towers first hand. She watched from below as the second plane hit the South Tower.
She says, "It was just the loudest explosion, the fire, the heat from it, the shaking of the ground - it had to be the worst sight. That and the people jumping."
Noble-Jones escaped the scene that morning with only minor physical wounds, but her memories continued to plague her in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
"The images just wouldn't go away, every day," she says, "I had no emotional connections at all. I didn't feel happiness. I didn't feel joy. There were no emotions except for anger and sorrow."
Noble-Jones got help by reliving her nightmare. It's a technique called Virtual Reality Psychotherapy, and in her case she was exposed to a computer-generated 3-D recreation of the sights and sounds of Sept. 11.
She says, "I couldn't get through it the first time. It was too real; the sounds were real, and I just cried. And all the emotions I had built up - the anger just started to pour out so when I left that day, I was less angry."
Psychologist JoAnn Difede uses the new technique to help people confront and deal with the mental trauma at the root of their problems.
Difede explains, "The person is getting a chance, in a safe environment, to realistically confront what happened to them, and create a more coherent narrative of what happened to them, and figure out a way to live with it."
For Noble-Jones, more than three months of therapy resulted in a breakthrough.
She says, "It was March 26, 2002, and that was my Sept. 12. I woke up, and it was another day. It was no longer Sept. 11 for me, and I was so excited. I was so happy."
Today, life is great, she says, "I have my emotions back. I have my feelings. I'm able to communicate. I have my family, my husband and child, and work that I love doing. I get up every day and I know that I'm going to be OK."
Studies to fully evaluate this therapy are still ongoing, but so far it's proving it's worth trying alongside talk therapy, which is also very useful on its own. New research from the New York Academy Of Medicine shows that not as many people as expected sought mental health care after Sept. 11, and according to some studies, there are about a half million new cases of PTSD as a direct consequence of the destruction of the World Trade Center.
Some warning signs of post-traumatic stress disorder are:
- Difficulty sleeping due to nightmares
- Flashbacks or intrusive imagery where someone keeps seeing certain aspects their experience.
- Avoidance - a person may be afraid to go out and socializes less because of their experience.
- Withdrawal, depression and irritability
- Conflicts at work or with family