Healthcare/MedicineGuest PostVirtual Reality

Virtual Reality Therapy: Using VR to Treat Addiction

On how VR may help people cope with substance use disorder.

Guest Post


If you are one of the many people who enjoys playing video games, you may be familiar with the world of virtual reality – a computer-generated virtual environment that anyone can explore and manipulate as if it truly exists.  VR creates new experiences for video game enthusiasts all over the world. It may also help people cope with numerous conditions, such as substance use disorder.

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Virtual Reality Therapy

Scholars at the Virtual Reality Clinical Research Lab at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work are pioneers of using VR technology for treatment purposes. The researchers have achieved success using virtual reality therapy to help smokers refuse the temptation of cigarettes.

virtual reality therapy for treating alcohol or drug addiction

Researchers are also focusing their studies on drug and alcohol addiction. Proponents of virtual reality therapy believe that it may help people manage pain, preventing the use of potentially addictive substances such as opioid drugs. But, if people do develop addictions, researchers also believe that virtual reality therapy may provide innovative approaches in treating such substance misuse.

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Virtual reality therapy is not meant to completely replace conventional addiction treatments such as medication, counseling, and behavior therapy. Rather than replacing such treatments, virtual reality can be another component of the treatment program. It may be an effective strategy to achieve one of the goals of addiction treatment — relapse prevention.


How Virtual Reality Therapy Works

If you are wondering how virtual reality technology helps people overcome addiction, here is how it works:

Depicting Real-World Settings

Using virtual realities, researchers can create situations where recovering addicts may encounter alcohol or drugs.

Before virtual reality, experts already used common scenarios to depict real-world settings where recovering addicts may encounter factors that could trigger their cravings for drugs or alcohol. Their treatment providers showed actual liquor bottles, syringes, or pictures of drugs to evoke cravings. In that way, recovering addicts could practice how to manage their cravings.

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When professionals use virtual reality, the triggers may seem more real.  Instead of merely looking at pictures, recovering addicts are exposed to and immersed in environments where they may have used drugs and alcohol. Professionals can customize virtual environments based on specific drugs and situations that recovering addicts may encounter in the real world.

Using virtual realities, researchers can create situations where recovering addicts may encounter alcohol or drugs.
For instance, if a person in recovery for alcohol misuse says that he visited bars, a virtual artist can create bar-like scenes similar to what the former alcoholic encountered. The artist can also recreate the exact liquor once used by the recovering alcoholic.

The former alcoholic would then wear a virtual reality headset to explore this newly created environment. Researchers would monitor his physiological changes to see if he experienced cravings. Through this simulation, recovering addicts may learn how to identify and address their uncomfortable cravings.

Managing Cravings and Developing Coping Strategies

Using virtual situations, recovering addicts learn how to endure painful cravings. They also learn how to develop coping strategies to overcome these cravings and ultimately resist the temptation to abuse drugs or alcohol again.

Given that addiction is a chronic disease, relapse is an ever-present danger. One of the most critical parts of addiction treatment is teaching individuals how to manage their cravings so that they can prevent relapse.

Traditionally, counselors or addiction specialists have shared various situations with a recovering addict and asked her how she would feel and react to these situations.  If needed, the counselor would teach the client coping strategies to help her manage situations better and avoid addiction.

While this method may be effective for some people, pretending to be in a particular situation or environment can be far from reality. Clients are often fully aware that they are in their counselors’ offices or other situations far removed from their drug and alcohol use.

When people participate in virtual reality therapy, they are immersed in environments as if they were real. They can interact with people and encounter addiction triggers.

On the other hand, if people participate in virtual reality therapy, they are immersed in environments as if they were real. They can interact with people and encounter addiction triggers. Their counselors can observe how their clients would act and cope in certain environments. At the same time, the counselors can immediately teach skills to help their clients manage situations as they happen.

In addition, since recovering people are exposed to different worlds during virtual reality therapy, they can acquire skills and ideas that can help them manage drug cravings. Ultimately, researchers hope that recovering addicts can learn coping skills to recognize and manage their cravings in the virtual world. They hope that they can apply these newfound skills in the real world when faced with situations that may entice them to use drugs.

Charles Watson

About the Author

Charles Watson is the current head content writer for the Sunshine Behavioral Health LLC. During these cold months, you can find him at the local Detroit Pistons games. He can be reached directly on Twitter at @charleswatson00.