Virtual reality has become an increasingly popular idea—allowing you to explore other worlds, and even altering your own. But in the world of addiction treatment, VR is a hot new topic, and a tentative new method of controlling triggers, cravings and urges.

A craving or trigger is something the person experiences that reminds them of drinking or drugging. Being triggered and not being able to cope with the thoughts, or feelings of the experience has caused many addicts to relapse. In the VR simulations, people are given support and advice to help them beat their cravings or triggers.

Research into the benefits of VR simulation as a viable addiction treatment is being conducted from Duke University, to the University of Houston, and elsewhere.  The question is, can VR addiction therapy work in conjunction with other treatments as an effective individual treatment plan? Or can these simulated triggers send someone off to use again?

Understanding Addiction, Triggers and Cravings

For those who are unfamiliar with addiction recovery, triggers and cravings are crucial concepts to understand. Any addict who has been to rehab whether inpatient or outpatient has discussed triggers and cravings as part of their individual treatment plan. Certain drugs have different triggers that make a person want to use. For example, powder on the counter left over from baking could trigger or cause a craving for someone in recovery from cocaine.

Understanding how the addicted brain works is something that is being taken more seriously in recent years. Triggers can also be emotional, and not related to being in a drug or alcohol environment. Understanding how to handle your cravings and triggers are important to addicts in recovery.

Most rehab centers emphasis giving patients the proper education and tools to cope with triggers and cravings. This can only do so much, whereas virtual reality addiction treatment can put you in situations where you experience natural cravings and learn how to cope with them.

Duke University’s Cocaine Experiment

Funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Duke University researchers have developed virtual worlds to help addicts combat cravings and triggers. Duke University professor Zack Rosenthal has been working with a team to conduct a real world experience for those who struggle with cocaine or crack cocaine. Rosenthal says the goal is to take people into a crack related environment and have them experience cravings that they would in the real world.

According to an article from ABC, the goal of the program is to give addicts in recovery a way to cope with cravings and triggers. “this isn’t about cocaine, and this really isn’t about substance use, this is about creating new learning and extending that learning to the real world.” This quote illustrates the potential benefits of adding virtual reality therapy as a part of an individual treatment plan.

University of Houston’s Heroin Cave

University of Houston’s Graduate School of Social Work have been studying VR therapy for addictions as well. Assistant Dean of Research Patrick Bordnick at University of Houston has been researching virtual reality as addiction therapy for over 10 years. Bordnick and his research team have demonstrated how VR can reduce cravings for nicotine alcohol and marijuana.

Bordnick’s team is now looking to develop a VR simulation for heroin addicts. The goal is to simulate real life heroin use experiences. The patient would be  forced into situations where people are injecting or snorting heroin. They also would have the users experience symptoms of a heroin high to trigger cravings, with of course the goal being to give the patient new coping skills for these situations. This would prove to be  an individual treatment plan that includes VR therapy, that could not only reduce cravings, but totally eliminate them.

Addiction Recovery is Not a Game

 In an article from Reuters, Dr. Bernard LeFoll, head of Alcohol Research and Structured Treatments for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Canada remains cautious on calling virtual reality a viable treatment option. “Much more research work needs to be done to be able to determine if virtual reality treatment will have a place in the treatment of alcohol use disorder.” This was in reply to another study conducted in Korea on VR therapy and alcoholics. This study shows promise, as areas of the brain that are related to alcoholism showed changes after the virtual reality studies were conducted.

In theory, VR therapy could work as a viable treatment for addiction, so long as it is mixed into an individual treatment plan with other therapies, and done in a controlled environment. Traditional drug or alcohol rehabilitation includes one-on-one therapy, addiction education and group therapy, which have been proven to work and should remain the cornerstone of addiction treatment.

We should also be cautious of putting virtual reality addiction therapy into the hands of the general public. The last thing we need to do is trigger someone so badly that the craving to use is too intense and they relapse. Addiction recovery is taken seriously by most involved, and the virtual simulation of triggering events could unintentionally do the exact opposite of its purpose.  Of course, VR must be more thoroughly researched before it is adopted by rehab centers and therapists across the country or world. But it’s a promising new facet of psychology, in shaping and inspiring the human brain to change for the better.

Author: William Miko [Image via Pixabay – CC0 Public Domain]