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Could tech be detrimental to trauma treatment? 

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Tech-related treatment & healthcare is nothing new – and hopes are high when it comes to things like AI and faster cancer diagnoses. But treating the mind, specifically trauma-related conditions like PTSD, is a more complex issue. Can AI, VR, and other advancements be trusted for matters of the human psyche? 

Health technology is moving fast, and we are learning to trust its abilities in diagnostics, medicine, and even surgery. But when it comes to matters of the mind, it can’t be denied that even humans don’t fully grasp the depths and complexity of it. Can we really look towards intelligent tech such as AI and VR for treating conditions such as PTSD, or other trauma-related conditions? 

Some experts believe that the shift from human care and comprehension, to technological solutions may not be the right move for future trauma assistance. 

“Human connection” for trauma healing 

Katarina Hunter, a nervous system expert and integrative health coach, told Health Tech World that healing trauma “requires a safe connection with another human being”.

She added: “As humans we have found ourselves in times in which we seek solutions to the problems by looking outside of ourselves. Including seeking technology to solve our health problems. 

“The problem with that is, that the answers to the chronic health problems that the western world in particular is experiencing are stemming from the disconnection with ourselves, our natural environment and those around us. 

“In other words, the solutions are inside of ourselves, not out there.”

Trauma – “also a biological quest”

“This isn’t just a spiritual quest, but an actual biological one. Healing trauma requires a safe connection to another human being. It’s about regaining a felt sense of safety within our own bodies.

“We can only achieve that when we feel safe (really feeling safe in our body), to express ourselves, to feel our human emotions, and to be who we are.”

Will AI assist trauma treatment?

Katarina, who runs Katarina Hunter Health continued: “If AI is to assist rather than trump trauma healing, people need education about how our survival biology works, why their physical, mental and emotional health might be in a state of disease, and how healing happens via the connection to their own body. 

“Otherwise, people will continue to believe that they need a solution from tech because they are unaware of their own agency in their own life and health.”

A hybrid approach 

Dr Sarah Bishop is a specialist clinical psychologist who has worked with various types of trauma. She said: “Regardless of the type of therapy used to treat trauma, one factor remains consistent in being the most helpful to people recovering from trauma – the relationship with the therapist. 

“For AI to operate as the sole provider of trauma treatment it would need to match the relationship building capacity of a human therapist. 

“We are biologically programmed to attach to and build relationships with other humans, therefore it might seem logical that we can only build the type of transformative relationship that effective therapy requires with a human therapist.”

She added: “Technology to match a human therapist is a long way off, but a hybrid approach where AI is used to enhance the therapy practically as well as facilitating the relationship between the client and the therapist is an exciting area of development.”

How trauma treatment works

Dr Bishop, who currently works within the NHS and has had research published with the Royal College of Psychiatry, explained a little more about how trauma treatment works. 

She continued: “EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing) is a therapy best known for treating trauma.

“It is recognised by The World Health Organization (WHO) and the National Institute for “Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a treatment for PTSD.

“It has a set structure, part of which involves accessing traumatic memories and performing bilateral stimulation.

“This means the therapist stimulating either side of your brain in an alternating left-right fashion to help you to access your subconscious memories in order to process what is stored there. 

“The therapist will usually do this by getting your vision to follow their finger, or by tapping either side of your body. This duel-attention helps ground the person in the present whilst enabling a deeper dive into their past.” 

AI and EMDR

Dr Bishop added: “AI could potentially assist a therapist in delivering certain aspects of EMDR. In particular the phase of treatment based on teaching techniques to cope with emotional disturbance could be enhanced by the use of AI.

“This might look like robots demonstrating rhythmic breathing techniques, whilst providing other relaxing stimulation like certain lights or music. 

“Sometimes people can feel awkward or uncomfortable doing such physical techniques directly with another person, in which case the use of a machine to guide them could be helpful.”

Psychotherapy will benefit from VR 

Psychotherapist and author William Pullen said he is “all for” tech such as Virtual Reality in treating trauma patients. 

He said: “Zuckerberg’s metaverse is still a long way away but $10Billion a year in research is bringing it a lot closer, a lot faster. 

“I suspect that psychotherapy will be a field that really benefits from VR. Imagine being able to master phobias at home at your own pace.

He added: “​Everyone has their own way of treating trauma. CBT is great for crisis control, but some traditionalists might argue it doesn’t get to the core of the problem.”

Food for thought

William added: “Here’s a thought – imagine watching two AI therapists trying to diagnose each other. If you programmed into them the various defences humans often employ, would they end up frustrated – or would they find a way through which we could learn from?”

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  1. Pingback: Why AI could actually be worsening the mental health crisis

  2. Pingback: War trauma: Healing broken children with video games?

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