Virtual Reality Therapy Helps Patients Overcome Trauma

4Virtual reality may soon become a widely prescribed treatment for people suffering from serious phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety, as well as burns and accidents.

Virtual reality exposure therapy is based on the idea that patients can better confront anxiety-triggering events when immersed in a safe and controlled 3-D environment. Several studies have found virtual reality to be more effective at treating some phobias and mental health conditions than traditional exposure methods, such as mental visualization or photographs.

A number of technology start-ups are developing low-cost virtual reality devices to help patients who are suffering from traumatic events. By making virtual reality more affordable, these devices may one day help doctors, therapists and researchers treat more patients than ever before.

For instance, Psious is developing a virtual reality airline simulation to treat anxiety disorders related to flying. Specialized headgear positions a patient’s phone near their eyes to create a virtual reality environment, while therapists walk them through a series of controlled, simulated environments. Using a mobile app, therapists can dictate weather conditions, crowd density, turbulence and other factors that normally trigger anxiety.

Other organizations, such as Swiss health care startup MindMaze, are integrating neuroscience with virtual reality to help victims of stroke, amputation or spinal injuries. Using a specialized headgear and motion-capture device, doctors can essentially trick a patient’s brains into re-learning how to move paralyzed limbs. MindMaze CEO Tej Tadi believes virtual reality video games can create a game that is so immersive it tricks players’ brains into believing they’re physically inside a virtual world.

These techniques are being used at the Veterans Affairs Healthcare System in Long Beach, Calif., where virtual reality technology is effectively treating those suffering from PTSD. Patients interact with battlefield situations within a video game-like environment equipped with visual, auditory and sensory cues. As scenes become more familiar, patients will eventually overcome their original fears and replace them with new information and experiences about the traumatic event.

While still an emerging practice, virtual reality exposure therapy holds enormous promise as a novel approach to treat serious psychological traumas.

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