Treatment for addiction has been rapidly evolving in recent years. New medications have come to market, new treatment modalities have been developed, and many states are working hard to provide treatment for more people. Technology has also been getting into the game. In recent years, several apps have appeared to help you fight addiction by helping you find a 12-step meeting or connecting you with with sober people nearby. Perhaps the most cutting edge technology now being used to fight addiction is virtual reality, or VR.
Virtual reality has been around for years, but it had one huge limitation: cost. It takes a lot of computing power to create a three dimensional world. Until recently, that computing power was very expensive. That’s not a big deal for government labs and major research universities, but it is a major obstacle for people who want to develop virtual reality software, and an even bigger obstacle for people who want to use it. Now that computing power is more affordable, there are new possibilities for virtual reality, including treating addiction.
Right now, the most promising use of virtual reality seems to be improving on a standard treatment method. Dealing with cravings is one of the biggest challenges people face when recovering from addiction. Triggers take many forms, including stress, hunger, fatigue, anxiety, and depression.
At the most basic level, though, triggers are people, places, and things. When you meet a person, visit a place, or notice a thing associated with substance use, it triggers an association in your mind. Like flipping a switch, some part of your brain thinks it’s time to use again and you experience a craving. This is a deeply ingrained response because the dopamine released in your brain when you use sets new patterns quickly and they are hard to unlearn. These patterns even appear to bypass your prefrontal cortex, which is why people who struggle with addiction often feel they don’t ever make a conscious decision to use, but somehow end up using anyway.
Addressing these automatic responses to cravings has been an important part of cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT for a long time. CBT is a well established method of psychotherapy used to treat many conditions, including addiction, depression, anxiety, and more. The “behavioral” part of CBT typically consists of learning pragmatic strategies for dealing with common situations that arise when you’re trying to stay sober. This includes everything from general stress management, to conflict resolution, to exactly how to reject an offer of drugs or alcohol. Traditionally, these skills are practiced through role playing, or more recently through interactive videos delivered online.
Therapists might also incorporate exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is when you are exposed to a stimulus in a safe environment so you can learn to control your reaction to it. It is commonly used to overcome phobias, but it also works well for addiction. The therapist might show her client photos of people, or certain drug paraphernalia, or empty alcohol bottles, or anything else that might trigger a craving, then help the client deal with that craving in a safe environment.
The biggest limitation of exposure therapy is that cravings are often context dependent. A therapist’s office might might be a fine place to start with exposure therapy, but making the leap to a bar or a party is quite a different thing. This is where virtual reality enters the picture. Instead of just seeing a picture or a bottle, you can actually enter the potentially triggering environment.
Many of the new virtual realities can be highly customized to reflect each person’s experience with drinking or drug use. For example, technicians can put you in a party in a specific kind of house, with specific kinds of drugs. Some programs can even simulate smells, and haptic VR is already in the works too, so soon you will be able to touch things in a virtual environment. You can build these scenarios a little at a time to practice dealing with increasingly difficult challenges. This way, you can practice new behavioral skills and overcoming cravings in a realistic environment before you are faced with temptation in real life.
This sounds cool and sci-fi, but does it work? Early studies are promising. One study, led by Patrick Bordnick, with more than 80 smokers found that people who were exposed to temptation in a virtual environment, such as virtual party, experienced stronger cravings than people in neutral environments. Another study by the same team compared two groups trying to quit smoking. One group received VR assisted treatment and nicotine replacement therapy, such as gum or the patch, while the other group received only the nicotine replacement therapy. The group that received the VR assisted treatment smoked fewer cigarettes and had fewer cravings than the other group.
Exposure therapy is just one possible way VR can be used to fight addiction. Another approach that has gotten some traction is nearly opposite to exposure therapy. Someone experiencing an intense craving can pop into a VR environment simulating a safe space and a virtual therapist. Or it could serve as a more sensory-rich version of Facetime, putting you in contact with a support system that might not be physically close. It’s still early days for VR. With more people working in the field, and more attention on the problem of addiction, new and interesting ways of using technology to treat addiction are bound to appear.
If you’re struggling with addiction or mental illness, The Dawn Medical Rehab and Wellness center can help. We are one of Thailand’s most respected addiction treatment and wellness centers. Virtual reality is just one of the cutting-edge treatment modalities to provide personalized care to treat addiction, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, PTSD, and executive burnout. See our contact page to reach us by phone or email.