VR can help people with PTSD experience less anxiety and process traumatic memories, said Skip Rizzo, director for medical virtual reality at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, who spoke with TechRepublic’s Teena Maddox at this year’s South by Southwest festival.

“We first used virtual reality to treat post-traumatic stress disorder around 2003,” recalled Rizzo. “It was a challenging time; most people didn’t believe there would be a problem returning service members and veterans. They thought, in-and-out, and done. It turned out otherwise. Fortunately, we had a plan: to deliver exposure therapy using virtual reality, or an evidence-based approach designed to help a patient confront and process very difficult emotional memories in a safe environment.

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We put people in simulations reminiscent of their experience, and we modify the simulations around their customized or unique experience, and help them go back into the scene, confront it, feel anxiety, but, eventually as they do it more and more, the anxiety starts to fade and they feel more empowered. We know from good clinical trials we’re reducing PTSD symptoms to a level where veterans can go back to their regular life and not be haunted by the memories of war. They still have their memories, we’re not eliminating memories, but we’re making it so that they can deal with their memories in a healthy way.

In addition to addressing the wounds of war, the invisible wounds of war, combat-related PTSD, we just completed a study on sexual trauma in the military and treating PTSD due to that very hard, hard problem. But, our initial data is very positive. It’s encouraging to the point where we’re looking to build out a larger research program. But the good news is this moves us from the military population to civilians who have been exposed to or experienced trauma; sexual trauma in the civilian sector, we certainly know that’s an issue, and we can make a difference, but we’re also working with police, fire fighters, first responders, and victims of terrorist attacks.

There’s plenty of trauma in the world, and VR stands well poised to be a treatment mechanism that make treatment more powerful, more available, more accessible, and maybe draw people into treatment who wouldn’t go to traditional talk therapy.”

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