Using war games to treat post-traumatic stress disorder

May 16, 2011

For those soldiers worried about the stigma associated with seeing a therapist, virtual reality applications for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may be the alternative to the traditional "talk therapy." A new paper, by Albert Rizzo from the University of Southern California, Institute for Creative Technologies, Los Angeles, and his team, reviews how virtual reality applications are being designed and implemented across various points in the military deployment cycle, to prevent, identify and treat combat-related PTSD.

Their findings are published online in the June issue² of Springer's Journal of Clinical Psychology in Medical Settings, specially dedicated to contemporary psychological advances as they apply to soldiers and their families.

The stressful experiences that characterize the Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom war fighting environments have produced significant numbers of returning military personnel at risk of developing . At the same time, (VR) has stepped into clinical practice, as a result of technological advances that have made it feasible and cost-effective to run VR systems on a personal computer.

What Rizzo and team's work shows is that VR is able to deliver - the number one therapy recommended for PTSD - by immersing returning soldiers in simulations of trauma-relevant environments. The emotional intensity of the scenes can be precisely controlled by the clinician in collaboration with the patients' wishes. VR allows multi-sensory and context-relevant cues that evoke the trauma without exclusively relying on the patient to actively remember and imagine actual experiences (as is required in traditional exposure approaches).

Rizzo and team review their immersive virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) system for combat-related PTSD. Their application consists of a series of virtual scenarios, based on accounts by returning soldiers of what it is like out there in a war environment.

Their clinical results to date are encouraging. One test in particular found that 80 percent of those who completed treatment with this system showed clinically meaningful reductions in PTSD, anxiety and depressive symptoms. In addition, anecdotal evidence from patient reports suggests improvements in their everyday lives for at least three months after treatment.

The researchers are also exploring other applications for their system, including stress resilience training i.e. to teach soldiers coping strategies prior to deployment to better prepare them for the types of emotional challenges they are likely to encounter in the combat environment. Another area of interest for the system is the identification of those soldiers who are ready to get back into the field versus those who need further treatment or more time between deployments.

According to the authors, this new approach to psychotherapy has widespread ramifications: "The current generation of young military personnel, having grown up with digital gaming technology, may actually be more attracted to and comfortable with participation in virtual reality exposure therapy. The need for treatments to address the mental health needs of our , alongside the virtual revolution that has taken place, has led to a state of affairs which stands to transform the vision of future clinical practice and research."

More information: Rizzo A et al (2011). Virtual reality goes to war: a brief review of the future of military behavioral healthcare. Journal of Clinical Psychology in Medical Settings; DOI 10.1007/s10880-011-9247-2. Available at http://www.springerlink.com/content/03533254r5q65p86/

Related Stories

Recommended for you

New study rebuts the claim that antidepressants do not work

August 18, 2017
A theory that has gained considerable attention in international media, including Newsweek and the CBS broadcast 60 minutes, suggests that antidepressant drugs such as the SSRIs do not exert any actual antidepressant effect. ...

Should I stay or should I leave? Untangling what goes on when a relationship is being questioned

August 17, 2017
Knowing whether to stay in or leave a romantic relationship is often an agonizing experience and that ambivalence can have negative consequences for health and well-being.

Kids learn moral lessons more effectively from stories with humans than human-like animals

August 17, 2017
A study by researchers at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto found that four to six-year-olds shared more after listening to books with human characters than books with anthropomorphic ...

History of stress increases miscarriage risk, says new review

August 17, 2017
A history of exposure to psychological stress can increase the risk of miscarriage by upto 42 per cent, according to a new review.

Study finds children pay close attention to potentially threatening information, avoid eye contact when anxious

August 17, 2017
We spend a lot of time looking at the eyes of others for social cues – it helps us understand a person's emotions, and make decisions about how to respond to them. We also know that adults avoid eye contact when anxious. ...

Communicating in a foreign language takes emotion out of decision making

August 16, 2017
If you could save the lives of five people by pushing another bystander in front of a train to his death, would you do it? And should it make any difference if that choice is presented in a language you speak, but isn't your ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.