Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy Can Help PTSD

Verywell / Catherine Song

Virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) is being examined as another way to help people recover from PTSD. VRET is a type of exposure therapy that has increasingly been used to treat a variety of anxiety disorders, including specific phobias. Before learning how VRET treats PTSD symptoms, however, it's important to have a handle on what exposure therapy is.

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Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy is considered to be a behavioral treatment for PTSD. Exposure therapy targets behaviors that people engage in (most often avoidance) in response to situations or thoughts and memories that are viewed as frightening or anxiety-provoking. For example, a rape survivor may begin to avoid relationships or going out on dates for fear that she will be attacked again.

If not addressed, avoidance behavior can become more extreme and interfere with a person's quality of life. Avoidance can also make PTSD symptoms stick around longer or even become worse. Because people with anxiety and phobias often avoid certain situations, thoughts, and emotions, they don't have the opportunity to learn that these situations may not be quite as dangerous or threatening as they seem. Avoidance also interferes with people working through their thoughts, memories, and emotions.

The goal of exposure therapy then is to help reduce a person's fear and anxiety, with the ultimate goal of eliminating avoidance behavior and increasing quality of life.

This is done by actively confronting the things that a person fears most. By confronting feared situations, thoughts, and emotions, a person can learn that anxiety and fear will lessen on their own.

Now, for exposure therapy to be effective, it is very important that people confront a situation that closely maps onto what they fear most. However, this may not always be possible for a person with PTSD. For example, a veteran who developed PTSD as a result of combat exposure would not be able to confront a combat situation again. It would unsafe to do so. This is where virtual reality technology comes in.

Using Virtual Reality for Exposure

In VRET, an individual is immersed in a computer-generated virtual environment, either through the use of a head-mounted display device or entry into a computer-automated room where images are present all around. This environment can be programmed to help the person directly confront feared situations or locations that may not be safe to encounter in real life.

There is some evidence which shows that VRET may be useful for treating several different anxiety disorders and anxiety-related problems.

Some examples include claustrophobiafear of drivingacrophobia (or a fear of heights), fear of flying, arachnophobia (or a fear of spiders), and social anxiety. In addition, a couple of studies have been done that test how useful VRET may be for PTSD.

VRET for PTSD has primarily been examined in Vietnam War combat veterans. Therefore, the virtual environment in which a person is immersed has included imagery that a soldier may come into contact with during combat, such as helicopters and jungles. These studies found that, following VRET, soldiers experienced a reduction in their PTSD symptoms.

Some studies have also examined whether VRET may be effective in reducing PTSD symptoms among soldiers from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. Similar to what was found among Vietnam veterans, it appears as though VRET can reduce PTSD symptoms in such vets.

Finding a Therapist Who Uses VRET

VRET is an expensive technology. So, not all clinicians currently use this procedure. Until VRET is more widely available, it is important to know that exposure therapy (without virtual reality) remains a very effective way of reducing PTSD symptoms, and there are many therapists who do exposure therapy.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Kothgassner O, Goreis A, Kafka J, Van Eickels R, Plener P, Felnhofer A. Virtual reality exposure therapy for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD): a meta-analysisEur J Psychotraumatol. 2019;10(1):1654782. doi:10.1080/20008198.2019.1654782

  3. Jaeger J, Echiverri A, Zoellner L, Post L, Feeny N. Factors associated with choice of exposure therapy for PTSDInternational Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy. 2010;5(3-4):294-310. doi:10.1037/h0100890

  4. Page S, Coxon M. Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy for Anxiety Disorders: Small Samples and No Controls?. Front Psychol. 2016;7. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00326

By Matthew Tull, PhD
Matthew Tull, PhD is a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder.