01/12/1998 at 01:00 AM EST
TREMBLING AND SWEATING, Sheila L., an arachnophobe since age 8 when a playmate put a spider on her face, is confronting a particularly scary member of the species. Instead of fleeing, she reaches out and grabs it. The moment "changed my life," says Sheila, 42, recalling the encounter. "It really did."
The insect isn't real—it is a cyber spider viewed with the aid of a virtual reality helmet—but Sheila's fears were. Her breakthrough, in a lab at the University of Washington in Seattle, may offer a new approach to treating a range of phobias. That, at least, is the hope of clinical psychologist Albert Carlin. To get over a phobia, "you need to be exposed to what you're afraid of in small bites," says Carlin, 62. "Virtual reality lends itself to this because you know you're not going to die."
Carlin pioneered cyber-spider therapy with Hunter Hoffman, 38, a research scientist at the University's Human Interface Technology Laboratory, in 1996. The people they treat don't have itsy-bitsy spider fear; they're hardcore arachnophobes. One, nicknamed Miss Muffet, put duct tape around her windows and towels under her doors to spiderproof her home. A fellow sufferer enlisted friends to staple pages of National Geographic that displayed the offending creature.
Miss Muffet toughed it out, though, and after 12 weeks of Carlin's virtual spiders, she learned that she could control her fears. Even in her dreams—in which she had been haunted by spiders—she was able to tell them to bug off.
Now Carlin and Hoffman are looking into treating such anxieties as fear of snakes and fear of public speaking. Technophobes who are unable to face virtual reality should probably, alas, look elsewhere.