The use of virtual reality technology is currently concentrated on gaming, but it has many other applications, including use in medical technology. VR may offer an alternative or even an accompaniment to traditional psychotherapy for post-traumatic stress disorder patients.
“Instead of a patient just talking through their experiences (traditional exposure therapy), they not only narrate but visually relive the experiences. This has the advantage of immersing the patient more fully, but also provides the therapist a ‘birds-eye view’ of the actual scenario,” Dr. Todd Richmond, a member of technical professional organization Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the director of the mixed reality lab at the University of Southern California at Los Angeles, told International Business Times in an email.
One of the beneficiaries of this research could be soldiers returning home from war situations. War situations are one of the most challenging situations faced by human beings and have long-term effects on the physical, cognitive, emotional and psychological well-being of military personnel. This is the reason many veterans return home with PTSD.
VR can help in treating such patients in a big way since it has the potential to immerse an individual in a situation, thereby activating different areas of the brain. VR provides psychotherapists a new way to work with such patients. In a clinical setting, the therapist can create a dashboard to allow them to recreate a traumatic scene, and even manage the parameters such as the time of the day and the weather. They can even manage the amount of kinetic action that takes place. Most importantly, by tracing the patients’ reaction to the therapy, they can monitor their progress in a much better way than traditional psychotherapy.
According to Dr. Richmond, “VR provides two big benefits – first is for the patient, as they can be more immersed in their past events, helping them to confront and work through them. Second, and perhaps more importantly, is for the clinician. As the patient describes the situation and the clinician visually/aurally recreates it, they can have a better understanding of what the patient experienced. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, so an immersive VR scenario might be worth even more words.”
Such therapy is not that expensive as it costs around $2,000 to set up its infrastructure.
University of South California has also developed a virtual reality exposure therapy. According to a paper written by the researchers behind the therapy, Albert Rizzo and Arno Hartholt, titled “Bravemind: Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy,” VR therapy offers a better alternative than imagining a scenario, since a patient can actually experience a particular scenario in a virtual world under safe and controlled conditions.
Moreover, young military personnel who have grown up with gaming technology could actually be more comfortable in a VR environment than a traditional psychotherapist session, according to the experts.
The treatment is available at Veterans Affairs centers across the U.S. According to Dr. Richmond, the field is rife for VR-based experimental psychotherapy, and researchers are also working on using VR to lower general stress levels in patients.