Virtual Reality and Post-Traumatic Stress

Simulations have long played a part in recovery at all of the centers that the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund has constructed. From our physical wounds facility in San Antonio, Texas, the Center for the Intrepid, to our invisible wounds center at Walter Reed Medical Facility in Bethesda, Maryland, the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE), to NICoE’s satellite Intrepid Spirit Centers, there’s at least one simulation system at each. These systems are mainly meant for helping with balance issues after a TBI or learning to maneuver again after sustaining an amputation at CFI. Just a few steps beyond those simulation systems is virtual reality (VR), which has taken the tech world by storm. 

The concept of virtual reality dates back decades, but it’s a common part of today’s tech world. VR headsets are everywhere, and have become easy to acquire as the technology rapidly advances. Those advances have led to VR being used as a method to help treat the symptoms of post-traumatic stress (PTS). 

PTS can strike at any moment. It doesn’t show up the day after experiencing a traumatic event. It can take weeks, months, or even years before it shows itself. And when it does, the symptoms of PTS can be debilitating. Anxiety, which can be boosted by hypervigilance, re-experiencing, and short temper are all among the common symptoms. Combatting the re-experiencing is especially difficult but that’s where VR comes in.

VR is part of a treatment called VRET, or virtual reality exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is a confrontational behavioral treatment that can be used to help reduce the symptoms of PTS. Exposure therapy targets the avoidance behaviors brought on by PTS, as well as the triggers of these symptoms and reactions. VRET does this by safely placing patients face-to-face with their traumas. 

The New York Times published a feature in 2021 that detailed one military service member’s experience with VR as a treatment for his PTS. A precise simulation was built and adjusted to mimic the traumatic event he endured and was re-experiencing. After running through the simulation seven times, he uncovered previously blacked out fragments of the traumatic event, including names and feelings. That moment caused him to feel like an “evil” was slipping out of his body. It resulted in healing. He found himself less fearful of both these traumatic memories, and of himself. 

As VR technology becomes more widespread, the accessibility for PTS patients continues to increase. Even at our own National Intrepid Center of Excellence, the CAREN system (computer assisted rehabilitation environment) is currently being developed for portable use. Expect to see great strides in VR exposure therapy in the coming years, which will hopefully lead to more reduced symptoms in cases of PTS. 

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Posted on February 14 2022 in Blog

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