By Abby Ellin
STEPHANIE WALL is from California, so driving is practically part of her DNA. It was a given that one day she would slide behind the wheel and zoom off; that’s what everybody did.
But in August 1999, just two days before she started college, a teenager plowed into her sport utility vehicle on a freeway in Denver. Ms. Wall ended up in intensive care. Her father, a passenger, was killed.
She wanted no more to do with driving, but she knew she would have to get back on the road. ”I didn’t want to freak out and get into another accident,” said Ms. Wall, now 21. A psychologist referred her to Brenda K. Wiederhold, a clinical psychologist and the executive director of the Virtual Reality Medical Center in San Diego, where Ms. Wall lives.
With virtual reality, ”you can have an accident and not get hurt,” Dr. Wiederhold said. ”People who are afraid of the freeway say, ‘Oh my God, this is dangerous.’ I get them to stop the thought and think instead, ‘Oh, I’m sweating and in control.”’
Over the last decade, psychologists have been using virtual-reality therapy — computerized simulation of the feared situation — to treat such phobias and anxieties as fear of heights, public speaking, spiders, flying, even combat. But Dr. Wiederhold is one of the first to use it for people who are afraid of driving.
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