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.
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.
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.
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.