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Helpless soldier sitting on a couch while waiting for a therapy session

PTSD Therapy in a Virtual World

Sometimes reliving traumatic events are the only way to move forward.

Our way of life is preserved as the result of brave warriors who have fought in some of the most war torn regions of the world. These men and women in uniform sacrifice so much to protect the freedom we enjoy here at home.

Some sacrifice a piece of themselves as they experience unfathomable horrors of war. Trained for valor and victory, they come home to stare into the abyss of despair. Countless veterans know what it’s like and question the meaning and purpose of everything. Many times, trauma they experience comes in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, or other psychological disorder.

The VR Treatment

There haven’t been huge advancements in the field of treating veterans, but one exception is the work of Dr. Barbara Rothbaum. “What if we can influence behaviors in the real world based on experiences in the virtual world?” she asks in a TEDx talk. You can view her talk in full here…

In the mid-1990s, she along with Dr. Larry Hodges, a professor of Human-Centered Computing at Clemson University, founded Virtually Better, Inc., a virtual reality exposure therapy company. Their innovative methods are used to treat people with fears and phobias such as flying and public speaking in addition to addiction and PTSD. Using the therapy, veterans relive the dreaded moments that psychologically entrapped them.

Dr. Rothbaum is an Emory University clinical psychologist who has been pivotal in advancing the use of virtual reality as a PTSD treatment. It is believed that by reliving traumas, the symptoms of PTSD can be reduced or relieved completely. Veterans wear virtual reality devices and watch the events unfold that may have been the origin of their trauma. You can watch what a therapy session is like in this short video…

Confronting the Demons

The experience the patients undergo is a total sensory immersion. The feeling of explosions overcome the subject with extraordinary realism. From visually experiencing the atrocities of war, such as seeing dying comrades and soldiers being shot, to the pounding sounds of ignited gunpowder, no corner is cut. Not to mention the smells associated with the incident. “It’s a multi-sensory experience. We want them to feel these memories over and over and wear it out,” she says.

She is so much more than your run-of-the-mill psychiatrist. Dr Rothbaum shares her expertise as a professor of psychiatry and the associate vice chair of clinical research at the Emory University School of Medicine. As the director of The Trauma and Emory Anxiety Recovery Program and Emory Veterans Program, she specializes in anxiety disorders focusing on PTSD in terms of treatment.

Six years after the condition was first identified by professionals, Dr. Rothbaum was already working hard on advancing the field. It was 1986 when she helped develop treatments, protocols, and a patented PTSD virtual reality device with partners at Georgia Tech.

For many pioneers in the field, the lack of education or research is not the largest hurdle. Rather, there is an instinctual resistance inherent in the patient population. In service, soldiers are trained in self-reliance and grow a confidence that is vital for survival in a war type of environment. This means that some are trained to believe they can overcome the trauma from their experiences without professional aid. Sometimes, these heroes are their own enemy when combating PTSD.

“The haunting nature of PTSD comes out in these treatments,” she says. “We’re able to treat the invisible wounds of war for post-9/11 veterans.”

The Wounded Warrior Foundation granted Emory $15 million, making it one of only four sites in the nation employing the technique. For three years, funds were used to provide care free of charge. Dr. Rothbaum was essential in securing this grant which is most likely to be renewed or extended.

Pioneer in the Field

The distinguished doctor helps in the advancement of Emory University’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences as the Paul A. Janssen Chair in Neuropsychopharmacology. The study of neuropharmacological drugs on the human brain at Emory owes much of its forward momentum to Dr. Rothbaum. The center provides patients with psychiatric and neurological disorders with family-centric and full-circle care. Along with Dr. Rothbaum, the team aims to prevent brain diseases by implementing techniques that one day will be found ubiquitous.

Even with sophisticated systems and support of affluent foundations provide, taking on the treatment of a disorder of such magnitude with brute force is draining. Frequently, the doctors have to guard their own mental health. Dr. Rothbaum herself has taken on meditative cycling and yoga to realign and restore herself. But it’s worth it.

“I’ve seen it help so many people. I think to myself, ‘How can someone ever get over this?’ But they do.” Her work certainly speaks for itself with over 275 scientific papers authored, nine books edited and authored, and a myriad of recognitions in the field of anxiety and PTSD treatment.

Today, she serves on the scientific advisory boards for the McLean Hospital, Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), and the National Center for PTSD. She leads the Emory Healthcare Veterans Program, a part of the National Warrior Care Network. Additionally, she was part of the team that received the Robert S. Laufer Award for Outstanding Scientific Achievement from ISTSS and the Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Practice of Trauma Psychology.

Dr. Rothbaum is one of the individuals working every day for the betterment of humanity. At Throomers, we shine a light on those like her who seek to brighten the lives of others. Learn more about the Veterans Program at Emory Healthcare on their website.