A service member puts on a headset with a screen for each eye.He’s given a joystick that’s built with low-frequency vibrations and sounds, mirroring the vehicle he drove while on the battlefield. As he navigates through the virtual combat world, his head movements are tracked with an orientation system. Pre-fabricated smells mimicking burning rubber and weapons firing are released into the air, and the service member ventures into virtual war.
This is the new Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET) being studied by National Center for Telehealth and Technology (T2), a Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury center. T2 is currently researching this therapy, which places service members face-to-face with their unique experiences on the battlefield to help treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and to help service members process memories. Once the study is completed, this unique treatment will be offered to service members and veterans.
“The whole treatment is customized to their memory, down to the day, time, weather conditions, location in the convoy and the combat stimuli themselves,” said Dr. Greg Reger, T2 lead psychologist. “The purpose is to activate the experience to increase emotional engagement, so they can process that memory.”
The study reviews the effectiveness of VRET by comparing it to prolonged exposure therapy. T2 conducted the trial based on growing evidence that VRET is an effective treatment for PTSD and because this form of therapy may help reach service members who might otherwise avoid traditional talk therapies because of perceived stigma.
VRET encourages service members to address psychological health concerns associated with their combat experience rather than avoid them. T2 subject matter experts are now trying the treatment on service members who have returned home.
The therapy program starts with three sessions with a psychologist where a service member discusses details they can remember from a traumatic event. Then, they re-live the experience in the virtual world for up to 10 sessions. While at first VRET may seem slightly jarring, it aims to reduce the anxiety the memory causes and help a patient work through their emotions.
“It can take the same amount of courage to do this treatment as it did to survive that battle experience,” said Reger. “Yet often, by the end of the sessions, patients regain control over the memory and their lives instead of being haunted by the trauma.”
T2 created the Virtual PTSD Experience in January, where users can learn about PTSD causes, symptoms and resources in a virtual world environment. Users choose an anonymous avatar, and then can enter different virtual areas where they can experience simulations and talk with other visitors online.
“Users can access information for resources including afterdeployment.org, Real Warriors and Military OneSource in live media screens, so they can search those places with other avatars in their environment,” said Dr. Kevin Holloway, T2 psychologist. “Families and friends can also enter the virtual world. We had a military family member tell us ‘Wow. I never really got what he was going through, and now I get it.’”
Since many of today’s service members use advanced technology such as smartphones, tablet computers and gaming systems, virtual therapy provides an alternative for a wired generation that may prefer treatment outside of a psychologist’s office.
“This generation is really tech savvy—it’s a language they speak very well. These programs have an interface feel similar to online environments and video games,” said Holloway. “This treatment is more comfortable and cutting edge.”
For more T2 research initiatives, visit their website.
By Robyn Mincher for Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury