Healthcare/MedicineApplicationVirtual Reality

Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy Transforms PTSD Treatment for Veterans

Virtual reality is being used to better treat veterans suffering from PTSD.

Veterans Day is an annual U.S. public holiday, observed on November 11. This day serves to honor those who have served in the United States Armed Forces. There were around 20.4 million U.S. veterans in 2016, according to data from the Department of Veterans Affairs. This represents less than 10% of the total U.S. adult population. For all too many veterans, however, returning from military service sometimes means coping with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can occur after experiencing a traumatic event. As a result, a person may believe their life, or others’ lives, are in danger. This disorder, seen in over 7.7 million American adults, can occur at any age. For military veterans, it is usually brought on from exposure to combat. Sometimes symptoms may not occur until months or years later.

According to Everyday Health, the percentage of veterans affected by PTSD varies. For example:

  • Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom – Between 11% and 20% of veterans.
  • Gulf War – About 12% of veterans.
  • Vietnam War – Studies suggest about 15% of veterans, though it’s estimated that about 30% have had PTSD in their lifetime.

Experts are always exploring new ideas to better treat veterans suffering from PTSD. Treatment has varied from medication to psychotherapy. One of the techniques, called exposure therapy, is already a common treatment for anxiety and specific phobias. So, it’s only natural to understand its use for treating PTSD with the use of virtual reality.

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A Treatment Pioneered in the 1950s is Re-Invented

Exposure therapy seeks to relive a sufferer’s trauma in a controlled, often imaginary environment. The idea is to take a patient back to the memory of the trauma. This goes on until their triggers no longer produce anxiety. Through this repetition, the experience becomes desensitized.

Virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) can now completely immerse people in a virtual environment.


How Does Virtual Reality Therapy for PTSD Work?

Medications and talk therapy can help calm the symptoms of PTSD. The most effective therapies often require confronting the trauma, as with virtual-reality-based treatments.

Therapists observe patients as they navigate the virtual reality experience. They can coach a patient to take on increasingly difficult challenges, while at the same time making sure that the person does not become overwhelmed. Some therapists may connect the subject to physiological monitoring devices. Others may use virtual reality along with talk therapy. The idea is to desensitize patients to their trauma and train them not to panic. This is all done within a controlled environment.


How Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy is Being Used Today

Dawn Jewell, Ph.D., a psychologist based in Colorado, is using virtual reality to help some of her patients who are suffering from PTSD. Jewell is one of a handful of psychologists and therapists using virtual reality tools from Limbix, a Silicon Valley startup. Their software allows patients to experience exposure therapy by incorporating Google’s Daydream.

The built virtual reality environments are real-world footage. This allows a patient to experience authentic exposures, and feel a true presence in genuine environments. Patients are gradually exposed to the source of distress. Experts can then control exposure thresholds in each virtual reality environment. This helps patients face increasingly stressful situations.


Ongoing Research and Development

Bravemind is a Department of Defense-funded initiative. It was created by researchers at the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California. Developed by Dr. Albert “Skip” Rizzo, it was designed to overcome the natural human tendency to avoid reliving trauma.

Virtual reality for treating PTSD
Dr. Rizzo helps veterans with PTSD identify not just the trauma cues, but to navigate through the layers of trauma.

In order to participate, PTSD patients first describe their trauma. For veterans, this involves customizable and realistic terrain that captures the detail of combat. It also includes the ability to select time of day, weather conditions, and vehicle (if any). It can even include their position in that vehicle, as well as many other details. Then, the information loads into the system to re-create events in a highly realistic rendering. Once a patient puts on a virtual reality headset, he or she is right back there. They completely immerse in the situation that brought on their condition. It is the chance to replay the exact scenario they endured in combat that holds the key to overcoming their trauma.

VR for treating PTSD
In virtual reality exposure therapy environments, addressed are the cognitive part of trauma, as well as behavioral.

Through virtual reality, the patient and the clinician are able to talk about every detail leading up to and after the trauma. In the brain, the details around the trauma often intertwine with the traumatic incident itself. By confronting the traumatic incident in a safe environment, they are creating new memories associated with the cues. It’s giving the cues that trigger the memory of the traumatic event something new to wire with. Hence, this becomes a safe experience.

Funding for Future Therapy Program

Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center recently received $45 million in donations from the Wounded Warrior Project. Rush plans to use this funding for its Road Home Program, which treats veterans with PTSD at no cost. One of their therapies is using virtual reality. Exposed to veterans are not only sights, sounds, and sensations of the events that have caused their trauma, but even scents. Nearby to the virtual reality setup are vials with odors of burning rubber, diesel exhaust, and cordite, which is the smell of weapons fire.

The program, which also helps the families of veterans, has treated more than 1,000 people since launching in 2014. With the new donation, Rush can treat another 5,000 veterans and their family members over the next five years, says Chicago Tribune.


Life After War

Virtual reality exposure therapy helps veterans in learning that you don’t have to run from the things that make you vulnerable. Instead, you can embrace them. Helping veterans navigate the challenges of living with PTSD, opens up doors to a healthier life.


Patricia Chang
the authorPatricia Chang
Patricia Chang is a South Florida-based freelance Digital Project Manager and XR Strategist. She is also a U.S. Navy veteran born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada, and has also resided in the states of California, Hawaii, and New York. With her B.S. in Computer Information Systems and Master’s in Project Management, Patricia has a decade of experience working with businesses at strategic and operational levels from technology start-ups to major corporations. When not doing project-based initiatives, you can find Patricia obsessing over anything VR/AR related, including attending a VR development academy, in hopes to fine tune her future digital consultancy business.