VR and PTSD

I have always found the Boston Marathon to be an inspiring event to watch. Yesterday, as my friends and I cheered on two of our classmates at Mile 25 who were running, I was really humbled by one particular runner who I saw run by. He was a male who was extremely fit looking, running at full speed in a “Team Semper Fi” Marines tank top, carrying a huge American flag as he made his way towards the finish line. The most impressive thing about the sight, aside from the flag and his obvious athletic ability, was that he was only running on one real leg. His other leg was a prosthetic. I later read about him in the news. It turns out that Staff Sgt. Jose Luis Sanchez is a retired Marine who lost part of his leg in Afghanistan in 2011 when he stepped on an IED.

 

Another inspirational runner was one with whom I went to summer camp; Jaymi Cohn. Cohen was cheering on runners at the finish line in 2013 when the two bombs went off nearby, causing her to be thrown to the ground and bits of shrapnel lacerated her legs. Cohen mentions in an interview how traumatic the incident was and how she struggled as she carried on with her daily life, overcoming PTSD from the Boston Marathon Bombing. Yesterday, she completed the 26.2 mile race with her sister and this time ran across the finish line herself.

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Jaymi Cohen (on back of sister Ilana Cohen) finished the Boston Marathon yesterday.

 

Cohen and Sgt. Sanchez had me thinking back to research I had done in another class about how people who are involved in bombings or explosions often suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. I was thinking to myself how incredible it is that both runners were able to pick themselves up after scary life-threatening incidents and complete such an incredible feat of running the Boston Marathon. Seeing both runners reminded be of the studies that have been done about virtual reality and how it has been used to help trauma victims to recover.

Dr. James Lake describes how virtual reality (VR) works exactly in combination with exposure therapy in Psychology Today’s article:

Virtual reality (VR) technology employs high-end computer graphics, 3D displays and multi-sensory feedback to create the illusion of interacting with a computer-generated environment resulting in intense feelings of ‘immersion’ and ‘presence.’ Sessions are guided by a therapist who regulates the virtual scenario to achieve the appropriate intensity of arousal for the patient. Repeated exposure results in habituation to a particular fear-inducing environment (i.e. reduced autonomic arousal), extinction of fear response and reduction in severity of PTSD symptoms.

The theory behind exposure therapy is that if someone has a fear of something or has experienced a trauma in the past, he or she will be able to make progress in overcoming that fear by being exposed to the fear in small increments in a controlled environment. If someone has a fear of spiders, for example, they could first look at pictures of spiders online with the assistance of their therapist in a safe setting. Later on, they could increase the intensity of the situation by watching a video that shows spiders moving, eventually building up to seeing a caged spider in real life. The same therapy can now be performed by incorporating virtual reality.

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Dr. Lake explains how VR is used with soldiers after they have returned from Iraq. Using VR and a program called “Virtual Iraq,” soldiers are exposed to a virtual reality that looks like Iraq and simulates the same feelings they had during their time there. Stress Inoculation Training (SIT) is then performed while exposed to Virtual Iraq, teaching the soldiers how to cope with the feelings triggered in the setting and how to cognitively restructure, or view the situation differently in their minds. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) as described here by the Beck Institute, is a common psychiatric therapy that is built upon the premise that feelings, thoughts and behaviors are all related to one another. By changing one’s thoughts or feelings towards something, an individual can change his or her behaviors as a result. If a formerly threatening situation is no longer perceived as such after having been walked through a VR scenario of a similar environment, the body will not have such strong behaviors in response to the scenario such as panic or a faster paced breathing.

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The CBT Triangle

VR has allowed therapists to recreate traumatic situations in a controlled manner so that PTSD patients can learn how to cope and restructure their emotional and physical responses to what was once a threatening environment to move forward and beginning the recovery process. Seeing marathon runners who have experienced traumas in the past, whether in a war or a terrorist attack, made me realize that there are still so many people out there who are suffering from PTSD who have not yet recovered to the point that Cohen or Sanchez and could benefit from VR and Stress Inoculation Training.

9 comments

  1. lenskubal · ·

    This was such a great post! I thought your introduction to the topic was great, as I too was fascinated by Staff Sgt. Jose Luis Sanchez when I learned his story. The use of virtual reality to help those with PTSD first had me skeptical, but your post changed my mind. It was your spider reference that convinced me. I absolutely hate spiders and as I read your blog, I really believed that if I was exposed to them more through VR, I could work to overcome that fear.
    I am happy to learn that VR can be used to help more serious issues than my hatred for spiders. I think that former soldiers and others experiencing PTSD need technology to overcome those daunting memories. VR seems to be a positive step in that direction, and I am hopeful that the innovative technology will help greatly

  2. dcardito13 · ·

    I watched Staff Sgt. Jose Luis Sanchez run past BC at Mile 21 and was amazed by his strength. In another article I read this morning, he helped a weak woman finish the marathon by carrying her over his shoulders. Amazing! Many people suffer through immense amounts of trauma, and your highlights about virtual reality are great innovations that can greatly assist with moving past the hard times. I wonder how soon this will be readily accessible to the everyday person. Very great post (even though I could have done without the spider…they freak me out haha).

  3. I don’t know if you saw the Boston Globe article on BC alumna Brittany Loring today, but it ties your two themes together pretty well.

    http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2017/04/15/brittany/5DW2T2Krse4pJuFw95FsJP/story.html?s_campaign=email_BG_TodaysHeadline&s_campaign=

  4. duffyfallon · ·

    Great post! I also loved reading about Staff Sgt. Jose Luis Sanchez this morning – I was happy to see that he got a ton of well deserved support and attention across the media. I have read a bit before about the application of VR in PTSD therapy and think it’s a very interesting use-case – someone in our class may have discussed it in a previous post. It sounds like the ability to simulate situations could benefit a large variety of therapy practices. I would be interested to hear the outcomes of PTSD treatment to-date – It’s brave for these guys to knowingly put themselves up to that distress inducing experience.

  5. benrmcarthur · ·

    I saw so much on Sgt. Jose Luis Sanchez all over Sm so it was so cool that you got to witness him running. This may sound odd, but as I was reading about how VR plays a role in therapeutic practice, it did sound remind me of how some people think hypnotic therapy works. While VR may be way more realistic, both therapies tackle the same idea of returning to a fear. I think VR has way more practicality because the therapist can control the visuals as well as how much of a specific item. I think this is something we will see much more often in treating PTSD.

  6. Neat post! Sounds like exposure therapy has been around for a while, but now VR is able to take it to new extremes. I’m sure that these VR therapy sessions need to be extremely controlled, as I can imagine that overexposure would probably be extremely traumatizing and thus defeat the entire purpose. It’s really great to see that even though VR has only been around for a short while, it already is being applied to so many different fields! What is exposure VR therapy going to look like in 5 years, let alone 10 or 20? It’s also interesting to think that machines (the specialized software and the VR headsets) may be able to provide better therapy than any human being – not that therapists will be out of a job any time soon. Thanks for this post, I’m upset that I didn’t see Staff Sgt. Sanchez myself on Monday but I’m sure he must have looked awesome!

  7. terencenixdorf · ·

    Nice post! Thank you for sharing about this topic because I had actually no clue that VR was used in this type of setting. I think it’s an extremely interesting type of therapy and I hope it only continues to gain popularity. I don’t know the exact statistics but you constantly hear in the news about how PTSD is such an overwhelming problem for the men&women who sacrifice everything to keep our country safe. I really hope that VR has the capabilities to properly help these people in need and I would love to know more about how VR has directly helped those suffering. Definitely going to look more into this! Thanks again!

  8. Really nice post and awesome to see how some are leveraging VR. I have heard that VR is being used in a similar way in court rooms. VR can be such an immersive experience as CGI is radically improving. Courts are planning on using them to recreate unbiased mocking of the crime so that the panel of jurors can experience what the defendant or plaintiff had. As for PTSD, I see this becoming a much more widespread tactic used in healthcare, psychology specifically. VR allows the end user to experience, but often more importantly, relive a moment that they may have thought was once gone. Inspiring to read about the stories of both the Marine and you friend, it was great to see this marathon go through and through without a hitch.

  9. mikeward7 · ·

    This was an awesome post. I had no idea that they had been using virtual reality to help cure people of post traumatic stress but thats such a better use of this technology then just advancing it for video game purposes. I’m definitely going to look up some more articles on this subject!

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