We’ve seen virtual reality therapy (VRx) being used for treatment of public speaking phobia. The San Francisco Chronicle is reporting a novel to use of VRx for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder:
Once a week, Pfc. Joshua Frey, a Marine who spent several months in Fallujah before he was shot Dec. 12, heads to a darkened office in the Naval Medical Center here and places a headset over his eyes.
He attaches biofeedback sensors to his arms, hands and chest, grabs hold of a joystick and enters a video game version of the Iraq war. As he moves through a “virtual” Fallujah, he encounters sniper fire, explosions and insurgents lurking in shadows. A Navy psychologist checks readouts from a flat- screen monitor showing the Marine’s heart rate, breathing, hand perspiration and skin temperature.
But for Frey and the U.S. military, this is no game. It is part of a potentially groundbreaking approach to treating the effects of severe combat stress, in Iraq and elsewhere.
Frey, like tens of thousands of other veterans of Iraq and other U.S. wars, has post-traumatic stress disorder. Since coming home, he has experienced nightmares, flashbacks and insomnia. But instead of the traditional talk therapy approach, Frey, in a study funded by the Office of Naval Research, is coming almost literally face to face with some of his most traumatic memories. The hope is that “virtual reality” scenes of violent conflict will provide a way for Frey to gradually confront his most painful memories and fears and manage the related anxiety.
“I’ve been doing psychotherapy for PTSD for 20 years, and my therapy has never been as effective as it is now, within the virtual reality environment,” says Frey’s doctor, Navy psychologist James Spira.
The virtual war, created at the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California, uses elements of Full Spectrum Warrior, a video game originally developed as an Army combat training tool.
Psychologists working with the military say soldiers suffering from post- traumatic stress disorder may be more amenable to such a treatment approach rather than traditional psychotherapy, often seen as too warm and fuzzy for the military’s macho culture.
“This is a gaming generation, they feel comfortable with games, and we see a lot more soldiers who want to take part in it, but won’t go to traditional talk therapy,” says Skip Rizzo, the clinical psychologist, professor and research scientist at USC who heads the team that built the virtual environment.