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.
As applied to the treatment of service members suffering from combat related PTSD, VR can recreate a realistic representation of a combat scenario that closely resembles the actual traumatic event experienced by the service member. For example, a Soldier suffering from PTSD that was triggered by his vehicle being hit by a roadside bomb can use VR to recreate this specific incident. With the help of the headset and headphones, the service member will be able to re-experience the perspective of being back in his Humvee. He will be exposed to relevant images such as familiar buildings, local vehicles and civilians, and a detailed landscape. He will also be able to re-experience the sounds and possibly even the smells associated with the event. The emotional content of this re-experiencing can then be dealt with in the safety of the doctor's office. If the therapy is successful, over time the original event will be less distressing for the service member.
The history of VR may be rooted in entertainment, but its use in the treatment of service members suffering from PTSD is no game. Today, some of the brightest minds at places like the Department of Defense's National Center for Telehealth and Technolgy in Washington State are studying the use of VR with service members. However, if service members don't ask for help, any treatment for PTSD is "virtually" useless.
"An edited version of this article was published by Military Times in my column Kevlar for the Mind."