Virtual Reality Helps Patients with PTSD

For sufferers of posttraumatic stress disorder or PTSD, everyday tasks and situations can bring about crippling fear and anxiety. The newest way to tackle this disorder and bring some relief to its sufferers comes in the form of virtual reality therapy.

Not just for entertainment purposes alone, VR technology is now being used in controlled psychological environments to allow patients to face their fears head on. This type of exposure therapy has proven successful in the past, but with the incorporation of new virtual systems, its abilities have expanded even further.

What is PTSD?

For some, witnessing and experiencing traumatic events such as combat, abuse, accidents, natural disasters, and terrorist incidents leaves them with a lifelong psychiatric disorder that affects their everyday life.

Soldier with PTSD in fog

Sufferers of PTSD often find it hard to complete their daily activities without reminders of incidents triggering them and causing them to feel fear, anxiety, stress, and depression. These memories are often relived by the patient during lifelike nightmares and flashbacks which can begin to take over their life.

Once PTSD has developed it can cause a range of health problems for the sufferer including insomnia, drug and alcohol abuse, and even cardiovascular and gastrointestinal problems. Due to the wide range of effects that this psychological illness can have, finding new ways to treat it is essential.

How Can Virtual Reality Help?

Current therapy for PTSD sufferers involves a range of methods, including exposure therapy. This involves forcing the patients to experience triggering situations in a way to help them face their fears head on. With this form of therapy, virtual reality can offer life-like scenarios without ever placing patients in the danger zone.

VR therapy is nothing new, though, with over 20 years of clinical trials taking place. However, with the commercial availability now available thanks to Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, this form of treatment is set to become even more widespread.

Man Wearing VR Gear on Exposure Therapy

As virtual reality lets users transport themselves to another place and time by slipping on a headset, this technology has become the unlikely tool that’s helping patients overcome their fears. A reported 30% of Americans who have spent time in war zones or combat will suffer from PTSD, making the need for technology such as this more important than ever.

A recent report published by the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health stated that patients who trialled the virtual reality clinical treatment were overall satisfied with the results. As it’s still a fairly new approach to therapy, though, there are still many areas which need improving.

What Does This Mean for the Future of Psychology?

Not only can virtual reality help those suffering from trauma, but this technology could eliminate the fear of flying or spiders as well as social anxiety issues. Because users of VR know that what they are seeing, hearing, and feeling is not real it helps to lessen the fear felt. At the same time, though, everything is so realistic that it tricks their conscious and unconscious mind into believing it’s true.

The University of Southern California developed a program called Simcoach, which allows veterans and their families experience a virtual reality therapy session by providing initial advice and guidance for where to go for help. However, it’s not expected that these virtual forms of counsellors could ever replace the real experience of human contact and understanding.

SimCoach Preview

The future of virtual reality for psychology and counselling looks to take place in the building of virtual worlds where users can experience stories, interactions, and events with virtual people. By allowing people to establish real connections with others and experience a range of emotions and empathy, this type of technology will not only benefit those with psychological problems but healthy people too.

The Verdict

While the technology is improving daily, there’s no telling what the future holds for clinical VR. It is certain, though, that the basic forms we know today are having huge impacts on sufferers of PTSD, particularly those affected by war and combat.

With the ability now to own virtual reality systems of our own, this technology and exposure therapy is likely to become more commonplace and will be able to help thousands more. No longer will VR be considered just a mode of entertainment, as the medical and scientific field search for new ways that it can help improve our quality of life and mental health as well.