Returning home from his final tour in Afghanistan, U.S. Marine Sergeant Chris Merkle faced his most difficult setback. When traditional counseling failed, he turned to virtual reality technology.

“I liked the thought of being in an immersive environment,” he recalls. “It seemed more approachable than sitting on a couch or being in a giant hospital feeling like a patient.”

No pain, no gain

Merkle was understandably apprehensive when told he'd be revisiting the place where his trauma occurred.

"It sounded horrible, honestly. I didn't really want to have my worst moment directly pulled up in front of me and have to deal with it. But you have to expose yourself, to make yourself better.

"It was very collaborative, and at my own pace,” Merkle says. “As I started talking, my mind started filling in the blanks. It was like a daydream, actually. It was really amazing.”

Dealing with emotions

Allowing himself to be vulnerable wasn't easy, but ultimately it helped Merkle conquer his demons by reliving what he'd endured overseas.

'“Every time you bring it up, talk about it and survive, it's still painful, but it's more normalized."'

“Your body gets that physical reaction — where you feel it in your chest. It puts you in the experience of being there,” he explains. “Every time you bring it up, talk about it and survive, it's still painful, but it's more normalized."

How it works

Prolonged exposure therapy occurs in a therapeutic setting, with a clinician in attendance. Albert “Skip” Rizzo, Ph.D., the director for medical virtual reality at USC Institute for Creative Technologies, clarifies the process:  

“Patients are asked to verbally recount their trauma experience in the first-person with their eyes closed, as if it were happening again, with as much attention to sensory detail as possible.”

Fourteen environments create a virtual world, including Iraq and Afghanistan cities, a rural Afghan village, a roadway checkpoint and a Bagram Air Force Base setting. Newer features include selectable Humvee or MRAP, helicopter vehicles and customizable sound trigger profiles.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE: Over the next couple of years experts expect VR technology to be a staple in households for consumers everywhere, largely due to its interactivity and afforability.

Wave of the future

“VR technology is charging forward in the consumer marketplace,” adds Dr. Rizzo. He mentions new low-cost, hi-fidelity and usable products that will likely drive wide-scale adoption. 

“It's probable [that] in the next few years, a VR device will be like a toaster,” he says. “Although you may not use it every day, every household will have one.”