Therapists are using virtual reality technology to treat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, reported Tech Insider. In this jarring form of therapy, former servicemembers suffering from the condition immerse themselves in familiar battlefield scenes via videogame-like virtual reality simulators. According to the National Center for PTSD, this technique is quickly taking hold within the psychological community. At least two Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers currently use virtual reality simulators to treat patients.

Confronting the past
According to The Wall Street Journal, veterans who regularly undergo this unique treatment regimen see tangible results. Marine Chris Merkle, a veteran of the Iraq War, began virtual reality therapy in the summer of 2013. Merkle had tried normal talk therapy and it didn't work – he couldn't unpack those memories in a silent, sterile office. So, he visited the VA Long Beach Healthcare System and enrolled in its fledgling virtual reality program.

During Merkle's first session, a therapist asked him to describe his hardest day in Iraq, reported Wired. Within minutes, the former platoon sergeant, wearing a virtual reality headset and clutching a plastic M-16, was once again experiencing war. He was with his men in the back of a truck in Nasiriyah, Iraq. Bullets hit Merkle's open-air transport. Buildings in the distance burned. It all seemed so real.

"As you walk through, you talk it through," Merkle told the magazine. "It's almost like opening a filing cabinet. Suddenly I'd be able to remember names. I'd remember details of what people looked like; what insurgents looked like."

These realistic simulations allowed Merkle to encounter the darkness head-on and sort through the situations that filled him with anxiety and rage.

"I tried a lot of things, but when I tried virtual reality it was like a toxic release," Merkle said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. "You're not just talking to a therapist on a couch. You're in that event, you're reliving those moments."

Working off established techniques
PTSD sufferers often feel they are frozen in time, reported Al Jazeera America. They recall traumatic situations in violent, hazy spurts that leave them grasping for details and meaning. Most PTSD treatments center on strategies that enable patients to fully relive disturbing memories and evaluate the emotions that accompany those recollections. Virtual reality technology is particularly useful in these situations, as it can render personalized reconstructions.

"We teach them how to control breathing, heart rate, respiration, sweat gland response, and teach them some processes to control automatic thoughts," Dr. Brenda Wiederhold, president of the Virtual Reality Medical Institute in Belgium, told the news agency. "It keeps them from becoming overwhelmed by the emotion."

Some critics say this brand of treatment is too intense for many patients. Others believe it's a gimmick that repackages gaming as therapy.

Proponents point to several studies that have assessed the efficacy of virtual reality therapy and found it to be a viable methodology. Therapists who work with the technology see results daily.

Dr. JoAnn Difede, a PTSD researcher at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, used virtual reality therapy to treat survivors of Sept. 11 and told The Wall Street Journal about a particularly obstinate patient who had deep reservations about the technique.

"She looked at me and said, 'This looks like a cartoon,'" Difede said in an interview with the newspaper. "But when she put the headset on, she started to cry, and she started to tell me her story with a degree of emotion that I had not seen in eight weeks of treatment with her."