Therapists and researchers are increasingly using virtual reality as a part of their efforts to treat veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
The military undoubtedly has some of the coolest and most incredible technology on the planet. Some of it was adapted from other professions, and much of it was specifically developed and advanced for the betterment of military intelligence and strategy as well as keeping service members both safe and well equipped.
As a military spouse and mental health professional, some of the tech that I find the most impressive are the tools they use to help some service members heal from hidden wounds, like PTSD. Thinking about this aspect of military life can be scary, especially for those of us who have either seen it first hand, or currently have a loved one serving, but knowing the amazing progress that has been made in quicker detection, diagnoses and further treatment of PTSD, lends itself to knowing that service members who need help are being well taken care of.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder didn’t become officially recognized as a diagnosable disorder until the early 80’s. Prior to this, many unseen ailments that impacted returning service members weren’t very well understood or addressed. Since its addition to the DSM (Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, third edition at the time of inception) there have been great amounts of research and funding put into what the best ways to diagnose and treat PTSD are.
While PTSD is not a diagnosis exclusive to the military, the treatment options designed specifically for military members are among some of the most impressive. One of the most inventive and by all accounts effective treatment tools has been the utilization of virtual reality.
One of the first instances that proved just how effective VR therapy could be was in 1997. A group of ten Veterans, who had all been previously diagnosed with PTSD, volunteered for a study put on by researchers at Georgia Tech. These volunteers had all tried other forms of PTSD treatment that failed to produce any significant improvements to their symptoms. After taking part in this VR study (nicknamed Virtual Vietnam) for just one month, every single Veteran showed significant improvement. From there, the door for this inventive form of therapy was swung wide open.
Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy aims to help service members recreate any potentially difficult or triggering events in a safe, secure environment. The goal with this, and any exposure therapy, is to safely recreate a potentially traumatic stimuli while simultaneously working to mitigate any negative symptoms associated with it. Exposure therapy has been widely used and highly regarded for years when it comes to treating individuals who have things like PTSD, anxiety disorders, or even fears.
What makes military PTSD a little more unique in some ways is that it crosses over two separate worldviews. Life during deployment and life at home are two very different worlds, regardless of whether or not there are any notably negative or traumatic experiences. Service members who deploy have a glimpse into part of the world many of us will never know. What VRET helps with is recreating scenarios specific to the individual, in an environment where there is support and guidance from professionals who are trained specifically in combat related PTSD.
To someone on the outside, this can sound like a potentially bad idea, right? Why force someone to relive traumatic moments over and over again? While it can seem counterintuitive, it is exactly the act of being able to relive and rewrite experiences that helps with overall recovery.
By examining emotional, physical and even neurological reactions to certain stimuli, VRE therapists are able to assess the root of an individual’s PTSD symptoms, and treat the cause, instead of solely addressing the symptoms. Over time, those triggering situations would be simulated so many times that they would cease to produce that negative reaction.
Another reason why VRET has a leg up on other forms of PTSD therapy is that by using fully immersive virtual reality, similar levels of adrenaline can be achieved naturally, by placing an individual back into that environment. What that really means is that again, therapists are able to assess the root cause almost entirely, and in doing so, aid combat Veterans in processing and rewriting those emotional, physical and neurological reactions.
Just last year, the Pentagon offered an additional 10 million dollar grant for virtual reality programs to be developed and implemented at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Fort Gordon in Georgia and in Virginia at the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth. Over the past few decades especially, the investment in mental health as it pertains to service members has been growing and evolving in its scope as well as understanding.
It can be hard to accept that things like PTSD exist in the lives of many service members. In a perfect world, we would like to be able to avoid any hardships for those who sacrifice so much for this country. Ultimately, we are living in a time where, while we haven’t figured out a way to avoid it altogether, we have so many unprecedented tools and opportunities to support those who need help.
-This article was originally published 6/29/2020