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For many soldiers who have seen combat, PTSD and other combat-related mental health issues are a real issue.

We can all suffer at times from fear, giving rise to an irrational and disproportionate reaction to the situation we might find ourselves in.  Standing in a room for the first time in front of  a crowd of people to give a speech might cause the throat to close up and the mouth to go dry: a fear of flying  might cause someone to have an overwhelming feeling that they are about to die in a plane crash. It is a simple truth that fear induces many irrational and strong feelings that we find hard to control.

For someone who has seen the trauma of the battlefield, suffering from PTSD this irrational response can be even more acute.  A crowded street might trigger a flashback to past battle-scene  or roadside bomb; a passing bus backfiring could induce and automatic response in which a soldier will be certain he is under attack.

Recovering from PTSD and overcoming anxiety disorders is challenging and time consuming work, but it can be key to anyone suffering from combat-related mental-health issues. Over the last few years a new tool in the treatment of these problems has been developed.  Called VR (Virtual Reality) therapy,  patients can be taken back to another time and/or place and indeed into another state of mind.

The VR Therapy process

After donning a VR headset with headphones, you are transported to a three-dimensional world within which you can move around and explore any location or experience. This might be moving underwater, taking a walk on the beach, riding a roller-coaster, or flying in a plane.  The list is only limited by the imagination of the software developers.

The  VR-world can be used to trigger known anxieties such as putting yourself in the middle of a section out on patrol in Afghanistan, simulating an incident you actually experienced whilst out there.  With guidance, people can grow accustomed to the scenario until they get to the point that they can cope with the scene.

Researchers have treated people with arachnophobia by exposing them to virtual spiders and even more effectively, having them touch fake spiders during that process. Studies have shown that VR exposure therapy can help people with a range of problems and conditions, including fear of flying, social anxiety, and — perhaps most well documented so far — PTSD.

You know that the events you see, hear and feel are not “real”, yet you find yourself thinking, feeling and behaving as if the place were real, and as if the events were happening. From a cognitive point of view, you know that there is nothing there, but, both consciously and unconsciously, you respond as if it really is happening.

The difference of course is that you will be surrounded by mental health professionals, guiding you though your anxiety and helping overcome your fear. Even when the graphics aren’t as realistic as one might hope, VR really can convey a sense of reality and presence that’s almost impossible to understand without experiencing it.

For many, the thought of using Virtual Reality to help soldiers with PTSD will be hard to grasp, as most will associate VR with gameing systems such as XBOX or PlayStation. However, over the past few years, VR has been the subject of several scientific papers which generally prove its  value as a therapy for PTSD and other mental-health issues.

Dr Albert Rizzo of the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, where the ‘Oculus Rift’ creator, Palmer Luckey, previously worked, said:

“Virtual reality for clinical use with PTSD sufferers has been generating a rich scientific literature for the past 20 years”

Rizzo has worked with clinical VR since the mid-1990s, winning an award from the American Psychological Association for developing treatments for PTSD. His VR therapies can help people to use prosthetics or to recover their physical capabilities after a stroke or trauma. He is currently working on VR scenarios to help train people with autism spectrum disorder in vocational and social settings, among other things.

Currently, VR is mainly used for “exposure therapy”, gradually exposing people to the situation that triggers their anxiety or PTSD.  Exposure is one of the best treatments we have for both PTSD and certain anxiety disorders.  Along with this, clinicians frequently use cognitive behavioral therapy to teach patients techniques for dealing with those situations.

VR technology has been around for some time,  but remained generally inaccessible until commercial sets, such as the  Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, came onto the market in 2016. The increasing availability of VR-sets points to a likely growth in the use of these new therapies. Rizzo thinks that our interaction with virtual worlds will inevitably become become more commonplace but warns against individuals thinking that they can simply treat themselves for any sort of psychiatric condition. He points out that the The VR headset might become a therapist’s office that can transport you to a new setting, but it won’t replace therapists themselves:

“I think there are a lot of areas where with some clinician support we can amplify the effects of therapy by having self-administered VR, but some forms of treatment really do require the guidance and diagnostic skill of a clinician.”

As a final thought, he commented: “There are so many ways we can improve life for healthy people as well as for people with mental health conditions.”


With thanks for use of USC Institute for Creative Technologies videos and images.

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