If war is hell, what do you call reliving it night after night after night?

For many trauma survivors — including almost 120,000 U.S. veterans — this nightmare is their reality. They move from the real horror of war to an infinite loop of virtual horror in their nightmares, with minimal rest and no recovery between.

An estimated 30% of those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) since 2001. They have difficulty concentrating and experience social and emotional detachment, loss of appetite, hyper-vigilance, and an exaggerated startle response. Left untreated, these symptoms become the seeds to bigger and more complex problems. Made worse by the nightmares that haunt 65% of them.

None of this should come as a surprise. It’s hard to heal the physical and emotional wounds of war — and to transition back into civilian life — when you can’t sleep. Escapism and aggression, common coping mechanisms, damage relationships. Leading, in too many cases, to unemployment, substance abuse, and violence.

Finding an Unconventional Solution

PTSD was first added to the DSM in 1980. Today, the psychological community better understands physical emotional trauma and its attendant effects. Existing treatment includes practices like visualization, breathing regulation, and other inwardly-directed mental exercises.

ICF’s involvement began in 2011, with an opportunity to help Navy physicians develop new therapies for their patients. Our team turned to a nascent technology that was, at the time, only seen as a curiosity. This was 5 years before Samsung promised that virtual reality (VR) would make your relatives cry and a year before Oculus even existed as a company.

How It Breaks the Cycle

To start healing, you need to restore a sense of control and provide restful sleep. Power Dreaming — an unconventional and promising combination of behavioral health, computer technology, and advanced VR imaging — can do just that.

Book of Dreams

Let’s break it down:

  • First, soldiers (with their care team) use sensors and other bio-monitors to understand their stress responses to nightmares.
  • Then they learn breathing and visualization exercises to “train” their initial response.
  • Finally, soldiers and their caretakers review the Book of Dreams. This customizable VR experience helps soldiers select a personalized scenario. They choose a physical environment, companion/ guide, and story path to curb the anxiety response to PTSD-related nightmares.

Once home, each soldier uses those breathing and visualization techniques to relax after waking from a nightmare. The now-calm soldier puts on VR goggles and enters their happy place, a customized 3D world that’s familiar, immersive, distracted, and — most importantly — controllable, even if disrupted again by nightmares.

A good night’s sleep won’t cure PTSD. But through Power Dreaming, PTSD sufferers learn how to control their nightmares. Which leads to restful nights. More productive days. And clearer path to a healed reality.

Power Dreaming is just the beginning, and is only one of many possible tools to manage stress and anxiety. Have you used VR to break a habit? How do you calm yourself after a nightmare or significant distraction? Share your thoughts in the “Responses” section below.