Virtual Reality Therapy For Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

virtual reality for ptsd

How virtual reality therapy is being used to treat PTSD

Imagine a smell or sound that has the ability to throw you back into one of the worst moments of your life. This is often a daily experience for a PTSD sufferer, and doctors and therapists are using virtual reality therapy to help them take back control.

What is PTSD?

PTSD stands for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and you have most likely heard of it in reference to soldiers returning from war, although many civilians suffer from this condition as well. PTSD can develop after a person has experienced a traumatic event, or after an event has occurred to someone they know.

For most people, it is natural to be frightened after being in a scary situation, but PTSD develops when these feelings of fear persist. Those afflicted with PTSD can experience; flashbacks that bring them back to the traumatic event, nightmares, anxiety, violent outbursts, depression, and often avoid places or thoughts that might trigger them.

Most often, the treatment for PSTD is medication and talk therapy to work through the event that caused the symptoms. However, virtual reality therapy has been used to help patients face their fears and has shown positive results. Being able to immerse a patient in an environment that has contributed to their PTSD is helpful in working through feelings of anxiety and stress.

What is virtual reality therapy?

Virtual Reality Therapy (VRT) is the use of virtual reality (VR) technology in the treatment of pain management, as well as issues like anxiety and depression. By using VR, users are dropped into a virtual environment and fully engrossed in the experience. Most VR experiences involved a head-mounted display, headphones for sound or music, often with noise-cancelling properties, a rumble pad, and joystick or other navigational tool to move through the virtual landscape.

Head-tracking systems help to surround the user in the virtual world and make the experience truly immersive. By including stimuli that engage the visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory systems, VR is distinctly different from watching movies or TV, or even playing 2D games whether handheld or on a console. While it was originally developed for entertainment, new applications for virtual reality are being discovered all the time.

Virtual Reality for combat induced PTSD

One area in which VRT is particularly helpful is in exposure therapy. During treatment, the patient is gradually exposed to environments or objects that trigger their post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or anxiety. By visiting a scene over and over, the patient will begin to feel less and less anxiety until they are able to deal with the scenario in the real world. []

Dr. Albert Rizzo is the director of Medical Virtual Reality at the Institute for Creative Technology at the University of Southern California and created Bravemind to help soldiers returning from war with PTSD. The system involves a customizable environment and goes as far as to include a scent machine that can make the environment smell like diesel fuel, garbage, and gunpowder to make the landscape all the more real. Rumble pads under the users feet and fake guns with the weight and feel of those used in the field help to increase the immersivity out the experience.

Dr. Rizzo says that the scene doesn’t have to be an exact replica; the brain is more than willing to believe the virtual world and this allows patients to interact with a scene that is as life-like as possible without having to go back to the location the trauma occurred.

Measured using an fMRI machine, researchers found that patients treated with VRT showed less activity in their amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for emotional reactions, and increased activity in the frontal lobe which helps with emotional control.

Bravemind is also looking to expose soldiers to the VR program before they are deployed as a preventative therapy so that users can start to prepare for what they will be facing in the field.

Virtual Reality for sexual assault induced PTSD

While PTSD is most often thought to be the problem of soldiers returning from combat, an estimated 7.7 million individuals in the United States suffer from PTSD. Many have experienced sexual trauma and rape, and women are twice as likely as men to have PTSD at some point in their life.

The World Health Organization estimates that the lifetime prevalence for PTSD worldwide is between 0.3% and 6.1% of the population.

Beyond Care is looking to expand their product to help those struggling with different types of PTSD. Barbara Rothbaum is a professor at Emory University Medical School in Atlanta working in Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences and has taken the Bravemind platform and created scenarios to help those suffering after sexual assaults in the military.

Using environments like an alley outside of a bar, a latrine, a closed-door office, and others, Rothbaum hopes to help assault survivors access the memories of the attack and then begin to work through their feelings and anxiety. She also notes that she chose to never show an assailant for two reasons: it would be ‘inherently scary’ to show an aggressor and wouldn’t be helpful for working through the trauma, and if the program showed an assailant that didn’t match the description of the person who had attacked the patient it would take them out of the experience. Often, the scene alone is enough to create tension and allow patients to work on their feelings.

Another group called Tusmorke is approaching sexual assault from another angle. More of a game with a storyline, Tusmorke’s Autumn takes the player through the months after the main character’s sexual assault by going through different seasons. The story is told backwards, starting with summer and recovery, spring dealing with other people’s judgment and feelings of shame, winter with isolation and depression, and autumn is when the attack occurs.

Marta, one of the creators of the game, came up with the concept after trying to explain her feelings of fear and anxiety after escaping an attack to her male friends and seeing that it wasn’t clicking for them.

Sexual assault happens to one in four women in the United States, and is a serious issue across the world. While games like this may not be conventionally used for treating PTSD from sexual assault, they can be helpful in spreading awareness.


PTSD can have a debilitating and lasting effect on victims, but with the help of virtual reality therapy, patients are finding ways to better deal with their feelings of anxiety and depression.


Please visit our Find A Therapist page for information on treatment centres offering virtual reality therapy for anxiety.