Fear of ICU treated with virtual reality exposure therapy

Writer: Rachel Murphy
Published: Updated:

Researchers are working to help people overcome their fears of the ICU.

An outpatient procedure for a cyst removal for Cheryl Thompson turned into a near-death experience.

“I had two collapsed lungs, double pneumonia and an infection running through my body. My heart had stopped,” Thompson said.

Thompson survived, but the trauma she experienced during her 10 days in the ICU was life-altering.

“I do remember being so scared once they took me off the ventilator that they would need to put that tube back in and that fear was almost instant,” Thompson said.

Brian Peach is leading a study on patients who endure post-intensive care syndrome, known as PICS.

Studies show 80% of patients who are in intensive care suffer from PTSD. A third are unable to go back to work in the first year after their hospitalization.

A virtual reality headset is helping patients cope with exposure therapy. It transports patients into the ICU with sights and sounds. They also use smells to help them overcome their fears. Researchers can physically see the distress in their patients.

“We can see that they get sweaty, we can see that they clench their jaw,” Peach said.

The sound of lawnmowers and weedwhackers reminded Thompson of her hospital bed inflating.

“I couldn’t let myself fall asleep because I was so terrified that if I slept I would wake up with a tube in my throat,” Thompson said.

After 10 sessions over a two-week period, Thompson felt her anxiety slip away.

“It’s just been so different and I am so much better than I was,” Thompson said.

ICU patients usually experience these triggers immediately after going home from the hospital. They persist months and even years later.

Virtual reality exposure therapy has been proven highly successful with first responders, military personnel and veterans. Studies show they overcome PTSD at much higher rates than the national standard.

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