Is Virtual Reality the Key to PTSD Recovery in Combat Vets?

Evidence Shows Virtual Reality Tech Helps Vets with PTSD Recovery When Other Methods Fail


Military veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) often experience severe anxiety when exposed to images, sounds, or other stimuli that trigger memories of combat. That’s why exposure therapy is one of the most popular forms of treatment for PTSD in veterans. Frequent exposure to simulated combat experiences allows patients to grow more comfortable with these triggers. Eventually, these stimuli can no longer provoke negative reactions. The more convincing the simulation, the more effective the treatment.

Knowing this, some researchers have turned to Virtual Reality (VR) as a means of addressing PTSD. Their findings thus far have been very encouraging.

How VR Helps Combat Veterans

One of the first studies involving the use of VR as a treatment for PTSD took place in 1997. Georgia Tech researchers used VR headsets to simulate combat experiences for 10 volunteers, all of them military veterans. Subjects were asked to describe their trauma during the simulated experience. After only a month, all ten volunteers demonstrated significant improvement.

Since that initial clinical trial, more researchers have explored this application of VR technology. Recognizing the potential benefits this form of treatment could offer military personnel, the United States government has helped fund the development of Bravemind, which uses cutting-edge technology to ensure that simulated combat experiences used in exposure therapy are as realistic as possible, without being so realistic that participants experience overwhelming trauma.

Researchers use the technology to help veterans who have not responded to traditional psychiatric interventions. After a course of treatment, which usually involves multiple VR simulations over 10 weeks, a veteran’s PTSD symptoms often reduce by as much as 80 percent.

Encouraged by these results, the Pentagon has committed $12M to allow for a more expansive clinical study.

Looking to the Future

As researchers learn about VR’s effectiveness as a means of treating PTSD, others are beginning to investigate additional ways this technology can help military personnel.

For instance, studies now indicate that repeated exposure to combat situations in VR can actually have a measurable impact on a person’s physical response to stressful environments. Repeated VR treatments may cause a reduction in heart rate, cortisol levels, and other biological indicators of panic. These findings suggest that VR can do more than help veterans recover; it can also prevent new recruits from developing PTSD later. VR training for military personnel can help soldiers adapt to combat in simulated environments, so they are less traumatized by the experience when they encounter the real thing.

This is just one more way virtual reality technology is improving the way healthcare professionals treat mental health conditions.

As the technology continues to develop, so too will its usefulness in these areas improve. For combat veterans, it could be a life-saver.


Joseph Oliveto is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Time, Thrillist, and numerous others. He lives in New York City and enjoys learning about the many ways in which virtual reality, augmented reality, and similar developing technologies will revolutionize our world.

For more articles on how VR is changing healthcare and other industries, make sure to check the VRHealth Blog.
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Education: Doctor of Physical Therapy from University of Michigan-Flint

Years in Practice: 10

Education: Bachelor’s in Psychology and a Masters in Social Work from Grand Valley State University

Years in Practice: 14

Education: Master of Science in Occupational Therapy from Eastern Michigan University 

Years in Practice: 19