Countless veterans have returned home with nightmares, gruesome visions and flashbacks of the violence endured while stationed in the middle east and other war-torn locales across the world. Some seek therapy with psychiatrists. Others turn to medication. A growing number of veterans are tapping into the therapeutic power of virtual reality.
Treatment Options for the Ever-Increasing PTSD Problem
Plenty of veterans avoid seeing psychiatrists as they are afraid of the stigma associated with asking another person for help. Fellow soldiers sometimes criticize a brother who engages in talk therapy with a shrink. Yet medications aren’t the optimal solution either. Too many pills can lead to an array of issues ranging from stomach problems to difficulty sleeping and a crippling dependency.
For many, the solution to PTSD has arrived in the form of virtual reality. There is no stigma associated with VR therapy. More importantly, virtual reality yields no damaging side effects. This medium is improving the lives of an ever-expanding portion of veterans who suffer from PTSD. Consider that nearly 70,000 new cases of PTSD were diagnosed in 2013 alone. Over 60,000 Vietnam veterans were diagnosed with PTSD that same year. It is clear that our soldiers are plagued by memories of violent events. VR just might be the therapeutic answer.
VR for PTSD
Exposure therapy is a highly effective form of treatment for PTSD. Created in the 1950s, this treatment requires that a patient relive his trauma in a controlled imaginary environment. He is brought back to the place where the trauma occurred in a repeated fashion until it no longer spurs anxiety. This phenomenon is known as process habituation. The traumatic memory is gradually deprived of its power when it is repeated several times over. Virtual reality simulations are now used to generate such an imaginary repetitive environment.
VR PTSD began in 1997 when Georgia Tech academicians took the initial steps to provide exposure therapy in a virtual reality environment. The first clinical trial was performed with 10 veterans plagued by PTSD who did not respond well to other forms of treatment. The trial was referred to as “Virtual Vietnam”. Patients used VR headsets to virtually travel to Vietnam jungle clearings or the passenger seat of a chopper. The therapist altered the sights and sounds while the patient described his trauma. Each of the 10 patients showed signs of extensive improvement following a month of VR treatment. Similar virtual reality environments have been created to help soldiers from subsequent wars overcome their PTSD. In fact, some forms of VR therapy are designed for those who have endured traumatic events outside of war.
VR PTSD Treatment Beyond Veterans
It is not only veterans who are benefiting from virtual reality therapy. Those who suffered burns in the 9/11 attacks have been helped by VR. Dr. JoAnn DiFede, the director of Cornell University’s program for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Studies, created a VR WTC simulation specifically for 9/11 burn victims. These victims are suffering from PTSD just like war veterans, albeit from a different set of circumstances.
VR WTC recreated the violent collisions of planes with buildings. It even included the attack’s sounds, explosive visuals and other painful details. Though this form of virtual reality sounds a bit morbid, it worked better than Dr. DiFede anticipated. VR WTC helped produce a 70% remission rate in half a year. At the moment, over 50 clinicians across the United States are trained to use virtual reality treatment. This figure will only continue to grow as more VR therapy simulations are created as time progresses.