Rick Robinson

Feb 21st 2017

Virtual Reality May Really Help Treatments for PTSD


Virtual reality (VR) is an emerging technology that most people today associate with immersive video games, examining planned structures before construction starts or safely practicing complex tasks.

But VR has more surprising applications. Alongside other technologies from videoconferencing to big data analytics, VR is even finding a place in providing returning veterans with treatments for PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Looking Fear in the Eye

Soldiering has always been stressful. And people have known for ages that the traumatic effects of battle do not always end when a soldier comes home. A hundred years ago, World War I called new attention to this hazard, first referred to by soldiers as “shell shock”. During World War II, Life magazine artist Tom Lea created the unforgettable portrait of a shell shocked marine after the battle of Peleliu. The haunting image further raised America’s awareness of the condition and impact of war on their returning veterans.

By US Army, Tom Lea [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

After the Vietnam War, the condition came to be known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and intensive research began into helping veterans overcome its effects. And since the 1980s, technology has been enlisted to provide treatments for PTSD.

Researchers discovered that familiar old sayings — facing down fear, or looking fear in the eye — reflect a basic truth about the human mind. Reliving a terrifying experience might seem like the very last thing that would help you get past it. But it turns out that one of the most powerful ways that the mind’s innate healing powers can overcome traumatic experiences is by recalling them in a controlled — and safe — way, literally looking at terrifying memories.

A basic technique for doing so involves describing the experience while a clinician monitors a vet’s eye movement, a technique now known as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR.

Virtually Back to the Battlefield

EMDR has now acquired a powerful ally in defeating PTSD. When virtual reality technology was developed, defense researchers knew that it could be used to help train service members to face tomorrow’s threats. But more surprisingly, VR can also help veterans by allowing safe recall of traumatic experiences.

Using VR technology, clinicians can create immersive experiences that reproduce a traumatic experience such as an ambush or dealing with an improvised bomb. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), this is an application of the general principle known as exposure therapy. Virtual reality, says the NCBI, “creates fictitious, safe, and controllable situations that can enhance emotional engagement and acceptance” of a traumatic experience.

VR therapy for PTSD survivors is still in the developmental stage, says the NCTI, and larger-scale studies must be carried out to determine its strengths and limitations, and how best to deploy it. But it is already playing a part in helping veterans complete their return home.

Making Contact With Friendly Forces

Technology is also playing a more indirect role in providing veterans with treatments for PTSD. One of the greatest challenges these vets face is that the very characteristics that helped them survive on the battlefield — such as cultivating the stiff upper lip and a self-conception as tough — can make it harder to defeat PTSD.

The VA and veterans’ organizations are thus enlisting allies such as the internet and videoconferencing technology to connect with veterans who may find it difficult to talk openly about PTSD and their experiences or who simply live a long ways from clinical support.

And while PTSD was first identified among returning warriors, they are not the only ones who can benefit from new technologies that provide treatments for PTSD. First responders such as police and firefighters, and survivors of rape and other traumatic experiences, also battle its effects, and may soon benefit from these technologies.

Northrop Grumman is committed to working with military veterans transitioning to a new career.