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Health: Virtual Reality Being Used To Help People Conquer Real World Fears

By Stephanie Stahl

PHILADLEPHIA (CBS) -- Overcoming phobias when people have extreme reactions, to things like snakes or speaking in public.  Virtual reality is now being used to help people conquer real world fears.

What you're afraid of, whether its elevators, close spaces, or maybe even bugs, and heights, can cause instant anxiety for many.

For Michael Rosenzweig, flying used to induce anxiety. It was so bad that sometimes he would actually get off the plane before takeoff. So when he found out about a trial to face his fear, using virtual reality, Michael says he jumped at the opportunity.

After several sessions with a virtual reality headset, combined with therapy, and information about air safety, he says he was cursed.

"I was amazed," Michael said. "I was gratified."

Dr. Elizabeth McMahon says virtual reality lets patients confront their fear in a controlled setting.

"We can individualize this to be most effective for exactly what you need to get over your fear," said Dr. McMahon, a psychologist.

Dr. Skip Rizzo, of the Institute for Creative Technologies, uses virtual reality to treat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"We can put people back in these simulations and help them to confront and process very difficult emotional memories," Dr. Rizzo said.

Dr. Rizzo says simulations work because of the way our brains function.

"Even though at some level the patient knows I'm in a virtual reality world, I'm not in the real world," Dr. Rizzo said. "The brain still reacts to it as if it's the real world."

Michael says he's cured, and has now flown more than a million miles.

Phobias may vary drastically in terms of their prevalence and severity. Doctors say virtual reality doesn't work for everyone, but experts say it's a relatively new treatment and now several companies are developing more sophisticated systems.

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