How Virtual Reality Therapy Impacts Veterans With PTSD

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Veterans deserve proper care and counseling for the sacrifices they have made to serve their country. Unfortunately, many veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and more than half of those diagnosed don’t receive treatment. Yet there’s hope. A promising technology, virtual reality (VR) may be popular among teens and video gamers, but it’s also bringing real benefits to veterans with PTSD.

To learn more, check out the infographic below created by Bradley University’s Online Counseling Programs.

How VR can play an innovative part in treating vets with post-traumatic stress disorder.

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PTSD afflicts individuals of all backgrounds. However, veterans are much more likely to suffer from the symptoms of the mental health condition.

It’s a prevalent problem. 8 million adults are living with PTSD in any given year. This number breaks down to 1 out of 10 women and 1 out of 25 men. Drilling down to the military ranks, 30 percent of Vietnam vets and 12 percent of Gulf War vets suffer from PTSD. The range of PTSD sufferers that fought in the operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom range between 11 percent and 20 percent.

Military sexual assault is a significant cause of veteran PTSD. 23 percent of female veterans receiving VA health care report being sexually assaulted. 55 percent of women and 38 percent of men in the same category report being sexually harassed.

There are numerous categorical symptoms associated with PTSD. For instance, people can experience reoccurring symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, or a sensory experience that triggers the memory of a traumatic event. PTSD sufferers can also experience negative feelings or beliefs, such as a lack of positive or loving feelings toward others, avoiding relationships, or exhibiting a lack of trust. Additionally, they could experience a fear or an avoidance of situations that resemble the traumatic event. Finally, they could suffer from hyperarousal, a condition that causes trouble concentrating, difficulty sleeping, and a feeling of always being “on guard.”

Virtual Reality Therapy and its Benefits

Studies have shown that veterans without close family or friends are less likely to receive mental health services. Though there are numerous reasons for this, VR technology is being used to treat PTSD in veterans.

Virtual Reality and Exposure-Based Therapy

According to research published on NCBI, “VR can help to modify behaviors, thoughts and emotions through virtual experience designed for and adapted to the person’s needs in order to facilitate and enhance the process of change.” With VR, the patient is immersed in the environment that triggers memories of the trauma. This immersion is a key part of exposure-based therapy (EBT), which involves the patient’s ability to visualize the trauma and narrate the story to the clinician. This combination of VR and EBT looks potentially promising. Yet according to the NCBI publication, “the need for more controlled studies, the need to standardize treatment protocols using VR-EBT, and the need to include assessments of acceptability and related variables” are crucial for the development of effective interventions.

There are two types of VR environments used to treat PTSD. The first environment depicts specific and realistic situations. The second one allows for more flexibility, using symbolism to represent the traumatic event. Regardless of environment, there are advantages to using VR environments to create EBT scenarios. The therapist has a high degree of control over the situation. The patient is also exposed to stimuli and environments that are otherwise difficult to access. Additionally, the sessions tend to be more confidential compared to traditional therapy sessions. The VR itself can also be very flexible in replicating environments to treat mental disorders. Finally, the therapy does not require patients to imagine their experiences.

New Technology for Diagnosis and Treatment

Virtual reality, exposure therapy, and biometric sensors can all work together to diagnose and treat PTSD. Several companies and universities have developed tech to improve the effectiveness of treatment.

One example comes from clinical psychologist Skip Rizzo. His VR system allows the patient to talk about their experience as they walk through the trauma, but it also has customization options. These options allow therapists to add secondary elements like clouds, missiles, small-arms fire and helicopters.

Another example is Ellie, a virtual PTSD screening tool launched by USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies. Ellie provides patients with an unrecorded, anonymous interview session, which encourages vets to be more open and talk freely – a tactic that helps to build rapport. Future developments may enable Ellie to report the veteran’s susceptibility to PTSD.

A third example of this technology comes from a process called Neuroflow, which monitors PTSD symptoms, such as heart rate-levels and brain-based neurological movements in real time. As the patient talks, the therapist monitors the readings of stress, engagement levels and relaxation to help identify triggers.


Although more controlled studies are needed, many studies demonstrate the effectiveness of VR-EBT in treating PTSD in veterans. Use of VR in treating PTSD requires trained mental health clinicians who can monitor reactions to VR therapy. Counselors and other mental health professionals should stay aware of developments in VR technology and be trained to adopt this promising treatment method.


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Emerging Technologies and Innovation in Patient-centered Care

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