Can Virtual Reality Therapy Ease Withdrawal Symptoms?
As technology has progressed, it has found its way into addiction treatment. Virtual reality therapy relies on computer-generated three-dimensional worlds.
As technology has continued to progress, it has also found its way into the world of addiction treatment. Virtual reality therapy relies on computer-generated three-dimensional environments. These alternate realities allow users to exist and interact with “people” that seem pretty darn life-like. Using advanced electronic equipment, typically including helmets with screens inside, these virtual worlds can actually be used to treat various addictions.
Zach Rosenthal is an assistant professor at Duke University in North Carolina. Thanks to generous funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Department of Defense, Rosenthal has been researching virtual reality’s effect on drug addicts. In addition to North Carolinians, test subjects include military vets who are now fighting their own personal battles with addiction. All in all, about 90 people have taken part in the study and the results seem promising.
Addiction in a Computerized World
When participants come to Rosenthal’s lab, they’re hooked up to a virtual reality simulator and almost immediately transported to a new environment. Some are put in a seedy neighborhood; others are in crack houses. Researchers slowly introduce cues or “triggers,” change the environment itself or alter the situation based solely on each patient’s history and drug of choice.
The point of this exercise is to put addicts in a situation that, in real life, would theoretically tempt them to relapse. The difference is that here, in a virtual world, instead of relapsing they can learn to develop coping skills. Once those become learned behaviors, they can apply them to their real, everyday lives. They can instinctively “just say no” to drugs and enjoy life from a sober standpoint.
While using virtual reality to treat addiction and withdrawal symptoms is relatively new, exposure therapy has been around for decades. Most of the time, exposure therapy is used to treat phobias. If someone is afraid of heights, they’re exposed to a first-floor window, then a second floor, and eventually a rooftop. The patients slowly acclimate to seeing and experiencing heights until, one day, they’re no longer afraid of them.
This same kind of scenario happens with addiction treatment. Once leaving the safety of rehab, addicts have to face the real world. If they’re no longer “triggered” by the sight of drug or alcohol cues, they’re able to safely employ coping techniques and refuse drugs, despite the cravings. It’s learned behavior courtesy of technology.