Virtual Reality and PTSD – DoD Roundtable

Our combat veterans see things with a different shade of glasses! Their survival instincts and experiences have highly toned their ability to react when facing combat situations. These same experiences and instincts are embedded into their brains upon their return from the combat arena and would surprise many Americans with little contact with the military or their families. These responses can lead to PTSD (post traumatic stress syndrome) and the symptoms of heightened heart rates, high levels of awareness of surroundings, sweat, anxiety, fear of crowds, strong emotions and many others. Seeing or feeling circumstances similar to combat threats such as a pile of garbage along a road (IED location) or driving under an overpass and suddenly accelerating to avoid the “kill zone” are typical. Up to 20% of our veterans find their responses overwhelming and meet the criteria for PTSD.

A pioneer in using immersive technologies to help these men and women met with the DoD Bloggers Roundtable and led us through a very interesting discussion of virtual reality and exposure therapy. Dr. Albert “Skip” Rizzo of the University of
Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies, leads several projects that use virtual humans and virtual reality for mental health training and support. He said that exposure therapy has, “the best evidence for success with PTSD” and explained that they were attempting to help patients confront their memories by repeating cycles of trauma memories starting at a low level and slowly increasing it through repetitive exercises.

As children we often heard our parents tell us to “get up and try it again” when we fell, did something new like public speaking or had a less than successful performance with our band instrument. For many the anxiety level came down each step we took, each concert played or speech given and the repetition taught us how to control the fears associated with that activity. Dr Rizzo is using technology to return our service members to these experiences that caused the PTSD through virtual reality so they can reduce their anxiety a step at a time. The ten step protocol begins with three typical counseling sessions and expands into seven exposure sessions where using a $1500 head mounted display (think science fiction) and a laptop the counselor can take the service member back to the combat environment and then return to the peace time location as well. These are not fixed scenarios but the clinician can build the scenario based on the patient’s experiences using the virtual reality simulator with a “Wizard of Oz” interface (think of it as behind the curtain controls).

The doctor emphasized that they do not “spring” anything on patients and the environment includes audio stimuli and scent as well. Three ongoing trials are being conducted to refine the counseling and it is now available at 48 locations with trained clinicians. Virtual reality is also being considered as a stress resilience tool prior to deployment and to assess returning combat veterans for possible PTSD symptoms. The doctor described it as game technology but not a game! Virtual reality is being used to narrate the personal experiences of those who fought for their country and returned needing help. In this digital age what a great tool to help our heroes! Thank you Dr Rizzo and others involved in this project!

If you would like to listen to an audio or read a transcript of this Roundtable please go to DoDLive. For other interesting information on PTSD from MilitaryAvenue please go to Our Letters to You/PTSD! For another great article on this subject go to Army News.

Photo Credits: A virtual Afghan marketplace as portrayed in Second Life inside Department of Defense’s Virtual PTSD Experience. Program users can navigate role-playing scenarios such as an explosion going off, and monitor their stress levels. DoD

Photo Credits: Dr. Albert “Skip” Rizzo. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army.byColonel KonWednesday, January 26, 2011Military Life:,,,

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