Could Virtual Reality Help us to Treat Addiction One Day?

Could Virtual Reality Help us to Treat Addiction One Day?


This is an interesting concept for sure: Taking struggling addicts through a virtual scenario in which they are confronted with triggers for their drug of choice, so that they can essentially practice saying “no” to the temptation over and over again.

The technology is real, and it is getting closer and closer to going mainstream. Casino Blog says that, when talking a therapy patient through virtual trigger situations, “We want to get to a point where my patient could actually learn to control what’s happening, control themselves, get out of the situation if they have to. All of this has to be practiced.”

So the idea would be that a recovering alcoholic would first go to addiction treatment and establish a baseline of sobriety. They would go through a medical detox process and start doing traditional treatment and therapy. Then they could incorporate some of these virtual reality sessions in order to practice overcoming triggers.

The virtual sessions could be customized to target their biggest triggers. For example, let’s say that a particular alcoholic typically drives home a certain way, and they always go past the same liquor store or bar that then tempts them to relapse. So this footage could be easily incorporated into the virtual session, right up to the point where they feel and see themselves walking into their old favorite bar. All they have to do is strap on a camera, walk through the scenario once, and then the would have it captured for usage on the virtual reality program.

It’s an interesting idea, because traditional therapy never really attempts to build up our “resistance muscles” in any sort of specific way like this. Traditional addiction treatment only seeks to find new solutions for when a trigger has happened: Things such as calling your sponsor in AA, going to a meeting, calling a peer in the program, and so on. Traditional recovery only teaches us to first avoid the trigger situation and then to respond and react to it with these various “lifelines.” But no attempt is really made to coach someone through the process of building resistance and strength towards these trigger situations in the way that virtual reality is promising to do.

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Is it a good idea? Perhaps it is. There may be a hidden danger in building too much confidence for people in the sense that they will be more likely to expose themselves to risky situations in the future, believing that they are now bulletproof. But I believe that it would be a net positive, in spite of this risk of overconfidence.

It is important to realize that a technology like this, while potentially very helpful for treating addiction, is not likely to become the sort of “cure” that people really want for it to be. This is because the core of success in substance abuse treatment always hinges on the level of surrender from the individual, not on the strength of the treatment program being used.

In other words, if you want to show an amazing success rate for your particular treatment method, the only way to really do this currently is to screen out people who are not in a state of what I would describe as “total and complete surrender,” meaning that these struggling addicts and alcoholics have to be at total rock bottom. Even then, it may be impossible to really determine in advance who is ready for real change, because some people do not really have a bottom, and they pursue their addiction or alcoholism right up until it takes their life.

In other words, I cannot really envision a world in which virtual reality simulations are able to provide the motivation for people to want to quit using their drug of choice. In fact, I am not sure that we would want that as a society, because such a technology would probably be a nightmare inducing program that simulated a never ending stream of negative consequences in our lives.

Consider what the typical alcoholic or drug addict says about their path to the point of real surrender: They came to AA and turned their life around, but only after losing everything, and nearly losing themselves in the process. They often lose relationships, jobs, cars, homes, and pretty much everything of value in their life is gone before they reach the point at which they are willing to finally surrender and change.

So imagine now that we take a troubled teen, for example, and we strap them to a bed and put a virtual simulation on their face. Maybe they are wide awake, maybe we are simulating a deep dream like state–I am not sure how the technology would evolve necessarily. Perhaps it is possible that we could put someone through a long, 8 hour dream in which they feel as if they have lived an entire lifetime, and during that dream sequence they would experience a lifetime of negative consequences and devastating loss.

Now imagine that we take this troubled teenager and we put them through a whole month of this, once or twice a day, putting them into this trance like state and running these virtual simulations through their brain. Maybe it is tortuous to endure and scars them permanently. And maybe it actually works, and we discover that we have essentially “cured” addiction and alcoholism–one must simply subject themselves to a rigorous month of violent and mentally scarring virtual simulations.

We might “cure” addiction out of ourselves in such a way, but at what cost? Do we really want a nightmare inducing technology that can scare us straight against our will? Is that a cure that we are willing to “pay” for? What if we find that roughly 10 or 20 percent of such virtual reality participants eventually commit suicide from the residual effects of this mental scarring? Would we still want the “cure” then?

I don’t know exactly where technology is headed when it comes to addiction treatment, but I do know this: Every struggling addict and alcoholic has an opportunity today, right now, to go “cure” themselves by checking into an old fashioned rehab center and simply following some simple direction.

Beating addiction doesn’t have to be complicated, but it is difficult. The hard part is in the willingness. Once you become willing, just about any method will do fine.

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