By: Hannah Heitz
Dr. Rothbaum has worked in the field of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) research since the diagnosis was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in the 1980s. The DSM defines a trauma as exposure to an event that includes the threat of serious injury or death. The criterion includes direct exposure, witnessing the event occur to others, learning that a loved one experienced a trauma, or experiencing chronic, repeated exposure to traumatic events. Symptoms include intrusive thoughts, negative affect, and increased arousal. Symptoms of PTSD are often triggered by sights, smells, sounds or feelings that remind the individual of the traumatic experience. For military veterans, that might mean hearing a sound that resembles a gunshot sends them into a panic, or, for survivors of assault, seeing a person who resembles their attacker might trigger a fear response. About 6.8% of Americans meet the criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD.
This is where virtual reality changes everything. Computer scientists partnered with psychologists can develop a virtual reality to expose patients to a controlled airplane environment, war-like settings, or any other trigger or fear. This controlled exposure is cheaper, easier, and safer. Dr. Rothbaum was one of the first to explore this treatment with her start up, Virtually Better Inc., which now focuses on virtual reality treatment, research, and development for anxiety disorders and PTSD. While virtual reality is growing in popularity and access is increasing, it is easy to only see the potential benefits. Interestingly, the fast-growing popularity also means there not a great deal of regulation for a potentially very powerful experience in the virtual world.
1: American Psychiatric Association. (2013). DSM 5. American Psychiatric Association.
2: Kearns, M. C., Ressler, K. J., Zatzick, D., & Rothbaum, B. O. (2012). Early interventions for PTSD: a review. Depression and anxiety, 29(10), 833-842.
3: Cukor, J., Spitalnick, J., Difede, J., Rizzo, A., & Rothbaum, B. O. (2009). Emerging treatments for PTSD. Clinical psychology review, 29(8), 715-726.