Virtual Reality (VR) to Assist in Reducing PTSD Symptoms

  • Reading through some of the latest mentions on the Internet regarding PTSD I stumbled across this article in the online Times of India.  It describes a research project utilising Virtual Reality (VR) games to plunge the traumatised individual back into combat situations in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Based on an original X-Box game this “therapeutic” version even uses smells to immerse the participant in every aspect of combat.

    Funded by the US Army, researchers from the University of Southern California have apparently reported good results in bringing down anxiety levels and PTSD symptoms.  The hypothesis is that by progressively raising an individuals feelings of anxiety up to a moderate level while simultaneously encouraging them to mentally process and talk about their traumatic experience , they can bring down anxiety levels and decrease PTSD symptoms .

    This type of hi-tech therapy for PTSD has been around for a while yet I remain as sceptical now as I was when it first hit the news.  It occurs to me that we are attempting to process and desensitise the emotion, anxiety and stress from traumatic memories of combat incidents.  Whether we do this by hypnosis, EMDR, CBT or one of any number of talking therapies is a moot point.  Trying to desensitise or process these emotions while providing the individual with new experiences, albeit in virtual reality, does not seem to be a good idea to me.  Nobody knows if these new experiences will be encoded into the brain in the same way as the original trauma, thus running the risk of setting up PTSD for the future.  It is well known that the sub-conscious cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality, so what is the sub-conscious making of this virtual reality world?

    I am all for research into new ways of dealing PTSD or any other issue for that matter.  Let’s face it, therapies that were “in vogue” in Freud’s era have long since fallen by the wayside in favour of better understanding and processes.  But calling on my specialist experience in this area, my gut instinct is that this particular avenue of research is dangerous!  Not least because PTSD can take many years to manifest, so we’re not likely to know about any negative side effect until years after this therapy would go main-stream.

    I remain, as ever, open minded though.  As with many avenues of research I will be keeping an educated eye on developments in the hope that my insitincts are proved wrong in this case.


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