Clinician's Digest

Clinician's Digest

Virtual Reality Therapy

By Gary Cooper

March/April 2010

He's back in Iraq, on foot patrol, nervously walking down a street that suggests Basra, when it happens again—an explosion right across the street. The sidewalk shakes, he smells the acrid smoke, and as the panic starts to take over, his therapist says, "Turn right and walk up those stairs over there." He goes up a stone stairway to the roof of a building and then watches the blast again, safely removed. Only the client isn't back in Iraq—he's watching the scene unfold on a computer screen.

Therapists are making increasing use of virtual reality (VR) therapy, which, several studies suggest, increases the effectiveness of exposure therapy, the most empirically supported treatment for anxiety disorders such as PTSD and phobias. A metanalysis in the April 2008 Journal of Anxiety Disorders found that VR is more effective than recalling memories exclusively through narrative, and just as effective as in vivo exposure for a wide range of anxiety disorders.

Its use may soon be growing. A study in the August 2008 Death Studies journal reports preliminary success using EMMA'S World, a VR application developed by Spanish researchers to treat complicated grief. Currently there are 50 VR sites in military hospitals and university clinics treating primarily PTSD and addictions. Albert Rizzo, associate director of the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies, points out that many of today's veterans, raised on video games and…

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