Believe it or not, military and civilian researchers are studying the usefulness of virtual reality in alleviating posttraumatic stress disorder in troops. For those of you who are less "tech savvy" than the rest, virtual reality-known simply as VR-is a computer based technology that allows a user to interact with an imaginary three-dimensional world. Although VR is typically associated with the video game industry, it has many applications to include pilot training, spinal cord injury rehabilitation, and as mentioned above, treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder. So, does this mean that all those late nights troops spend playing Halo will prevent them from getting PTSD? No, probably not. But, the application does have the potential for improving the lives of thousands of service members suffering from this often times disabling condition.
How does it work? VR is used as a means to facilitate a highly effective treatment for PTSD called exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is a type of psychological treatment in which the patient confronts a feared thought, image or memory associated with a past traumatic event for the purpose of decreasing the emotional and physical distress associated with the event. The process of habituation-or the decreased response to a stimulus after repeated exposure-is assumed to be the force that decreases this distress. Traditionally, the patient would be asked to confront the distressing thought, image, or memory via their own imagination. This is done within a controlled and therapeutic environment and the emotional fallout is processed between the doctor and patient. With VR technology, the patient is assisted with recall of the event by head-mounted visual displays and headphones. In some cases, odor generating devices can be employed to replicate the smells associated with the original traumatic event.