Will Virtual Reality Change Therapy and Treatment For Mental Health?

In an increasingly violent world, more people are susceptible to the development of post traumatic stress disorder than the veterans of war for whom the diagnosis was originally created. Watching violent news stories or repetitive coverage of terrorism based events can cause symptoms of PTSD to arise.

Albert Rizzo, the director of medical virtual reality at the University of California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, believes there is great potential in developing virtual reality to treat PTSD and other mental health disorders. “PTSD and anxiety disorders are characterized and propagated by avoidance,” he writes. Mental health disorders like PTSD and anxiety are commonly co-occurring with substance abuse. Euphoria, the sensation caused by a mass production of dopamine, a pleasure transmitter in the brain, helps people with mental health issues feel as though they are escaping their pain. Unable to cope with the difficult emotions brought on my mental illnesses like PTSD, substance abuse becomes a coping mechanism. Using substance abuse as a crutch, Rizzo argues that the brain of such a person doesn’t continue to learn. “When you avoid something in fear, or it makes you feel anxious, you get a temporary sense of relief, and that reinforces continued avoidance.”

Rizzo bases his design and program through exposure therapy. Evidence-based though still widely unused, exposure therapy treatment for PTSD asks a patient to vividly describe a traumatic episode in the present tense. Many see this as “re-traumatizing”, which can cause more harm than good. Utilizing the visual narrative of a virtual reality device could actually reduce the traumatized mind from essentially running wild. Helping to keep the patients present minded, while still confronting the past, Rizzo explains, “virtual reality, then, allows patients to be immersed in simulations of what has traumatized them, at a gradual pae, and helps them confront and process these difficult emotional memories.” More importantly, Rizzo argues, the virtual reality treatment can help those suffering with PTSD be liberate from their painful pasts and move forward with their lives.

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