Treating PTSD with VR

One out of 10 returning soldiers expeience PTSD. With VR exposure therapy, some of their burden can be alleviated.

The homecoming of a soldier evokes images of celebration. Balloons flying in the air, streamers littering the ground, and the open arms of friends and family. But one out of ten soldiers will be coming back to U.S. soil with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They’ve lived through some of the worst the world has to offer. As a result, their loved ones may find themselves with a changed person. A soldier with PTSD might be more irritable, become emotionally detached, or have trouble sleeping. One of these soldiers is Chris Merkle.

Virtual Reality as PTSD Exposure Therapy

Merkle served three tours in Iraq and four in Afghanistan. The one-on-one therapy he was receiving at the United States Department of Veteran Affairs was not providing him with the help he needed to confront his PTSD. That’s when he heard about Skip Rizzo, from the University of Southern California Institute of Creative Technologies.

Exposure therapy is more widely known as a treatment for phobias, where a patient is exposed to the object of their fear in a non-dangerous setting. The technique has also been used to treat anxiety and substance abuse.

Rizzo’s version of the technique incorporates virtual reality. Instead of re-living a patient’s trauma experience through their memory, Rizzo recreates the scenes and the sounds in a computer-generated world. For the hour and a half a session goes on for, the patient talks to a clinician, who is able to add events and objects within the simulation.

VR exposure therapy for PTSD.
Chris, insider the virtual recreation of a warzone with VR exposure therapy for PTSD.

Merkle calls the VR therapy a “leap forward in [his] progress.”

The ease in which our bodies accept the virtual world as the actual one may be one of the reasons why.

“You’re in the story,” Rizzo says. “You’re in the world.”

Rizzo’s method achieves a level of immersion and physicality that traditional exposure therapy is not able to reach.

Exposure Therapy for Us All

PTSD afflicts more people than just soldiers. 7 to 8% of the population will have a form of the disorder at least once in their lives. But using VR doesn’t have to stop at treatment. While Rizzo imagines therapy aided by virtual reality, the rest of us can use it to confront the things holding us back.

What I saw in my first VR experience.
What I saw in my first VR experience.

The first time I tried virtual reality, I used a friend’s Oculus Rift. The simulation threw me into a scene from the Hayao Miyazaki film, Spirited Away. I remember how disoriented I felt just moving around. The creatures scurrying on the floor threatened to crawl up my legs.

Iori Kusano talks about how quickly it took for her to “start treating [her] virtual surroundings as if they WERE [sic] real” in her review of VR video game Job Simulator.

It’s not difficult to imagine how “real” VR can become.

Our mental blocks prevent us from things like speaking in public, or trying something new, or even getting started with fitness. This whole website stands as evidence to how VR is a force in the latter. VR is widely known as a game medium now, but I predict that it will also be seen as a tool for helping people.

– Osmond Arnesto

Have you seen a really cool VR experience you think we should know about? Leave a comment below so we can check it out!


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