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Surprising Science

Is There a PTSD Vaccine?

By virtually exposing soldiers to the harsh conditions of war before their deployment, stress-reduction strategies can taught in real time as psychological dilemmas arise in laboratory settings.

What’s the Latest Development?

Researchers at the University of Southern California are working on a psychological “vaccine” against post-traumatic stress disorder by exposing soldiers to the horrors of war in a controlled laboratory environment prior to deployment. “Unlike a real battlefield, though, a virtual one can be frozen, and events occurring there discussed at leisure” with a virtual mentor who guides users through stress-reduction tactics. “These may be as simple as breathing deeply, or as sophisticated as objectively recognising normal reactions to stress, and thus realising that your own reactions are normal too.”

What’s the Big Idea?

If such a training method proves successful, the result could be a better fighting force with fewer psychological scars. It would imply, however, that some people are better suited to become soldiers than others, raising questions about the issuance of psychological waivers from service similar to those given for physical disabilities. That eventuality is one likely to be challenged by the armed forces, whose philosophy takes for granted that anyone with proper training can be made into a warrior. But if a better fighting force resulted, military leaders should welcome a fuller psychological understanding of its soldiers. 

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