Could Virtual Reality Become a Regular Treatment for Alcoholism?

Could Virtual Reality Become a Regular Treatment for Alcoholism?


Is it possible that virtual reality may one day be used to treat addiction or alcoholism?

Actually, it is already beginning to happen. Fitness Insider says that “Researchers have discovered a particular form of VR therapy could help alcoholics reduce their craving for alcohol.”

What happens is that the patient is hooked up to a virtual reality world in which the therapist can simulate various scenarios involving drinking or drug use. They can make a relaxed scenario or contrast that with a highly stressful scenario that represents aversion to alcohol or drugs.

Big Think says that “virtual reality is a “safe space” for us to engage in problem solving that we’d normally be reluctant to attempt “out there.”

This is already showing some promising results. Researchers are using a brain scan tool that is able to show the metabolism of the brain in terms of how it deals with alcohol cravings. Through the use of virtual reality therapy, they have been able to prove through measuring brain metabolism that they can effectively reduce alcohol cravings through the use of VR.

The idea would be to combine this VR therapy with other forms of addiction recovery tools, such as medications to reduce cravings such as Campral, or possibly other therapies such as AA or NA meetings.

The vision is that maybe one day it would be possible to treat an addiction without relying on a social solution such as what currently exists today with AA and NA meetings. This would be a much more solitary solution that you could do in an office environment by yourself, without having to rely on groups, meetings, or group therapy situations. This could make the technology very appealing to alcoholics and drug addicts who also suffer from social anxiety and have a fear of group settings.

The big question is going to be: Does it actually work? If they can prove that it shows promise in clinical trials, which looks likely at this point, then this could become much more mainstream as we move forward. People are eager to hear about alternatives to traditional recovery approaches because, quite honestly, they don’t want to do the hard work involved.

If you work in a treatment environment then you know what I am talking about: Ask a bunch of struggling drug addicts if they would rather take a pill for their treatment, or attend lots of meetings and endure gut wrenching honesty with a sponsor, and what do you think they will say? Everyone wants the easier, softer way at this point.

Furthermore, there is an attitude that medical science and technology should be able to solve all of our problems in some way. Even if this is not the case, people have a general belief that technology can solve any problem at some point in the future–perhaps they are just not quite there yet. Who is “they?” Researchers, medical experts, scientists, and so on. They will develop a pill eventually that cures addiction once and for all. This is the generalized belief that many people have towards most medical problems.

The problem is that it may just not be effective without combining VR therapy with traditional forms of treatment. In other words, it may simply not turn out to be the magic pill that everyone hopes for it to be, in which case it will end up serving as a distraction rather than an enhancement. I notice a lot of this when it comes to MAT, or medication assisted treatment. Most forms of MAT are designed to be use along with traditional therapy, counseling, 12 step meetings, and so on. But when you tell people about the option, most struggling addicts just hear “This magic pill will remove all of your cravings” and then their brain tells them that if they are taking that pill then they won’t have to do the hard work in recovery that everyone is telling them about. Nobody really wants to go to meetings, get honest about themselves, look at their character defects in detail, and make a plan to radically reform themselves. Nobody wants to do the hard work if they can figure out a way to avoid it. So the fear is that people will latch on to something like VR therapy as a way to avoid doing the real work in recovery.

Think about it: Even if you use VR therapy to overcome your fear of sobriety and you make some headway into the world of addiction recovery, you may still have a lot of the same environmental triggers to deal with. You may have some of the same resentments that spurned your drug or alcohol use in the past. You may have a lot of the same behaviors that tend to get you into trouble.

So without doing the actual work of recovery, without taking this inventory of yourself and your life and your self destructive behaviors, you are probably going to find yourself right back in the same cycle eventually. If nothing changes then nothing changes, even if a slick VR therapy is able to buy you a few months worth of temporary relief.

Don’t get me wrong–my hope is that virtual reality treatments show a lot of promise for treating alcoholism and drug addiction, and that it goes on to revolutionize the field of substance abuse treatment. But as I point out above, my guess is that this is going to be more of a supplemental treatment rather than a magic solution that instantly fixes all of your addiction problems.

The bottom line is that this is still a positive development and hopefully it pushes the boundaries of what is possible in treating addiction. The more options that we have the better, and the more we learn about how the brain actually functions in terms of addiction and cravings, the better off we will be. The world is hoping for a real “cure” to addiction and alcoholism, even if technology is rather slow at getting us to that point.

Imagine a day where a struggling alcoholic could strap on a VR headset, drift off for an hour, and wake up later without any cravings to drink or use drugs. Imagine that this technology were available for free, thanks to the Internet, and that it could be used to help not only people with addictions, but also people suffering from other mental disorders. My hope is that this future is becoming more and more of a reality each day, and that new solutions can be developed that will get us closer to the infamous “cure” for addiction and alcoholism.