“VR won’t be a solution,” said Jonathan Rogers, a researcher at University College London who has studied the rate of anxiety disorders during the pandemic. “It may be part of the solution, but it won’t obsolete drugs and formal therapies.”
Does VR therapy work?
Virtual reality treatments aren’t necessarily more effective than traditional long-term therapy, said Dr. Sherrill. But for some patients, VR offers convenience and can immerse a patient in scenes that would be difficult to reproduce in real life. For some people, the treatment can mimic video game systems with which they are already familiar. Patients using virtual reality also have a double consciousness – the images on the screen are almost lifelike, but the headset itself serves as evidence that they are not real.
Months after the September 11th terrorist attacks, Dr. Difede and Dr. Hunter Hoffman, director of the Virtual Reality Research Center at the University of Washington, gave virtual reality treatments to a survivor with acute PTSD, one of the first reported uses of the therapy. Dr. Difede said that the first time the patient put on the headset, she began to cry. “I never thought I’d see the World Trade Center again,” she said to Dr. Difede. After six hour sessions, the patient experienced a 90 percent decrease in PTSD symptoms. Dr. Difede later tested VR exposure therapy on veterans of the Iraq war; 16 of the first 20 patients no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD after completion of treatment.
At the University of Central Florida, a team called UCF Restores has developed trauma therapies using VR that allow clinicians to control the level of detail of a simulation, right down to the color of a bedspread or a television that can be turned on or off. to more easily trigger traumatic memories. The program provides free trauma therapy, often with VR, to Florida residents and focuses on treating PTSD.
Dr. Deborah Beidel, professor of psychology and executive director of UCF Restores, has expanded treatment methods beyond the visual aspects, adjusting sounds and even smells to create augmented reality for patients.
Jonathan Tissue, 35, a former Marine, sought treatment at UCF Restores in early 2020 after talk therapy and medication failed to relieve his PTSD symptoms, which included flashbacks, anxiety, and mood swings. In the end, it was the smells pumped into the room while he was describing his military service to a clinician that helped bring his memories back to life. There was the stench of burning tires, diesel fumes, the smell of rotting corpses. He heard the sounds of ammunition being fired. His chair rumbled thanks to the simulated vibrations of the center.
“It opened certain doors that I could start talking about,” he said. He talked through his newly discovered memories with a therapist and a support group and processed the terror that had built up in his body for years.