Virtual reality offers new approach to PTSD treatment

Veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may find relief for their symptoms through the innovative use of virtual reality (VR). Some Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals, university centers and military bases have turned to gradual exposure therapy to help former service members heal by reliving the moments that triggered their PTSD.

The Miami VA facility, the University of Central Florida (UCF) PTSD Clinic and the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies are among those who use VR systems. As VR systems become more affordable, a growing number of health care facilities may choose to incorporate them into their treatment options for PTSD.

The free, three-week UCF Restores program uses a combination of group counseling and VR therapy to transport veterans to the traumatic, life-changing experiences that induced their PTSD. VR therapy uses video googles, headphones and even smells to recreate a particular scenario.

According to research by UCF Restores founder Dr. Deborah Beidel, 66 percent of patients have experienced successful outcomes with the program. For example, one Iraq veteran claimed the process helped reduce his anxiety and paranoia.

Although Beidel described the VR experience as “intense,” she said, “The advantage is that we can really take care of this disorder and treat this disorder thoroughly and effectively in a short period of time.” While it may not be possible to eliminate the traumatic memory completely, the program aims to reduce its accompanying stress and anxiety.

The University of Southern California also runs a VR therapy system called Bravemind. The VR session involves a therapist guiding the veteran through virtual scenarios that resemble their traumatic experience. Patients discuss their fears and anxieties while the therapist helps them process the traumatic memory. The goal is to enable patients to alter their perception and responses to PTSD symptoms.

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