About ten percent of the U.S. population has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at any given time and while it is mostly seen as a disease affecting war veterans it can manifest in those who have experienced motor vehicle accidents, rape, or natural disasters.
Becoming an official diagnosis in 1980 PTSD hasn’t been clearly understood and effective treatments are still being developed. Dr. Barbara Rothbaum is a pioneer in the use of virtual reality exposure therapy for the treatment of various psychological disorders, specializing in research and treatment of patients with anxiety disorders, focusing primarily on PTSD.
Rothbaum says that PTSD is a lousy diagnosis as it is a disorder that is very hard to live with but that diagnosis can lead to therapeutic opportunities. The treatment that has shown the most evidence for efficacy is exposure therapy, a form of cognitive behavioral therapy. Exposure therapy helps people to confront the memory of traumatic events by going over it repeatedly until they can gain a sense of mastery over the memory. Their experience can never be undone and these memories will always be bad but it is the goal of the therapy to help people move through them and be able to remember them without the associated pain.
In her role as a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and director of the Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program at Emory University School of Medicine, Rothbaum has been on the forefront of using technology to enhance current exposure therapy techniques. By adding virtual reality Rothbaum has found that as patients describe their traumatic experience to a therapist who will manipulate the virtual reality environment to match the memory, patients feel a sense of presence in the memory that wasn’t there previously.
It is Rothbaum’s hope that she can find a way to prevent chronic PTSD from developing after traumatic events occur and working with patients right after they experience a trauma using the methods developed in exposure therapy it is thought that consolidation of fear memory can be avoided hopefully stopping PTSD in its tracks.
Written by Angela Goad