What is Virtual Reality (VR)?

Can virtual reality (VR) help with addiction treatment? Before we delve into this, let us first define virtual reality.

Virtual reality (VR) is an artificial, computer-generated environment. It involves software simulation of a three-dimensional image or background. VR is presented to the user in such a way that the user suspends belief and accepts it as a real environment.

The image or environment can be interacted with by the user. This interaction is in a seemingly real or physical way. In most cases, the experience is via sight and sound. It involves immersing yourself in a virtual world using a headset.

Many people think of video games when they hear about virtual reality. As much as this is correct, there are other uses of VR. Beyond gaming, other uses of this technology are:

  • Work collaboration in the workplace
  • Recruitment and training
  • Creating ideas and forecasting trends
  • Pain management
  • Training medical students
  • Treatment of PTSD
  • Training on social cognition to manage autism
  • Therapy for paraplegics
  • Virtual travel and tours

These are but a few uses of VR. It has multiple applications in healthcare, the car industry, space travel, and education. There are also benefits in courtrooms, military training, shopping, and meditation.

So, can VR help with addiction?


What is VR Therapy?

Virtual reality therapy involves exposure to a particular set of stressors and triggers. These are called “cue reactivity.” It takes place in a safe environment with a healthcare professional.

VR therapy enables individuals to face fears, trauma, or triggers. At the same time, however, they learn coping mechanisms while in a safe environment.

So, if VR can do all of this, why is its use not widespread? Or, is this the next big thing in addiction treatment?

Even though there has been quite a buzz lately, there is still a long way to go. There is a potential for virtual reality and addiction treatment, but it is not yet a standard treatment. That is not to say it is not available, however.

Indeed, various treatment centers are using VR therapy. Nonetheless, there is a need for more research to validate this treatment modality. In addition, VR equipment accessibility remains an issue.

One thing is sure, though. Despite how far addiction treatment has come, this field needs more innovations. Dependence on drugs and alcohol remains a scourge in many countries. This trend is despite the high numbers of inpatient and outpatient treatment centers.

Perhaps, it is time for innovations such as virtual reality to have more applications in addiction treatment. It is possible virtual reality, and addiction treatment will be more common soon. While this is already slowly happening, the results of ongoing researches will have a huge role to play here.


Is Virtual Reality New to Addiction Treatment?

Not exactly. VR is not entirely new to this field. Medical virtual reality has been in existence as far back as the 1990s. It has applications to treat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Also, this technology has research applications in treating depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. Many of these are ongoing studies and researches, however. Consequently, VR applications have not been widespread.

In addition to mental illness, there are ongoing studies for addiction treatment. A 2014 study demonstrated that VR is a useful tool for cigarette smokers. Furthermore, there are current researches on the benefits for other illicit drugs like opioids and cocaine. Non-substance addictions such as gambling are not left out.

Accessibility is one of the stumbling blocks with this technology. In the past, VR systems were only obtainable from research facilities. Though still expensive, they are becoming more affordable.

Some treatment facilities now have VR equipment and utilize them for treatment. Still, it is essential to get to the point where they are even more readily available. Again, the results of various ongoing researches will likely determine how this will pan out.

Many VR researches look at creating triggering and stressful environments with VR. At the same time, coping mechanisms are available from trained professionals. On the other hand, some VR techniques involve soothing sessions. The aim of these is to calm distressing emotions. Also, some VR systems provide interactions with other people with similar problems in the virtual world. In other words, it helps with social connectedness.


How Does Virtual Reality work for Addiction Treatment?

There has been a transitioning of VR from a niche corner to a more global reach. This trend has been over the last decade. Virtual reality in addiction treatment comes in the form of helping to fight off cravings and learn coping mechanisms. In addition, VR helps with practicing recovery techniques, mindfulness, and experiencing a soothing environment. Albeit in the virtual world. The good thing, though, is that this translates to the individual’s real world.

Despite VR therapy occurring in a virtual world, it can help individuals cope better in the real world. This treatment, thus, helps with people’s ability to maintain recovery.

This technology takes you into a world that seems like a real-life setting. The transition occurs using a special headset. Thus, it may seem like you are in a work environment, school, home, or even restaurant. So, how does this help you?

What this does is allow you to interact with the world around you directly. Repeat exposures to specific triggers and stressors can help you overcome the desire to use drugs.

Some of these available virtual worlds have been pre-recorded with special equipment. Some may also be complete simulations. Because these VR systems are offered in a safe environment, there is no risk of relapse. In addition, trained professionals work through this situation with the users.


Does Virtual Reality Help with Detoxification?

Some treatment programs are also known to use virtual reality systems to help with detoxification. The thought here is that VR techniques distract the individual from the discomfort of withdrawal symptoms. Perhaps, ongoing research will shed more light on this.

Soothing scenarios with relaxing music can help the detox and recovery process too. Such an environment, albeit virtual, can help with stress, anger, and irritability. It can also provide an avenue for meditation and self-reflection. These, together with providing an escape for cravings, may help immensely with recovery.

In addition to treating addiction, VR is helpful in the treatment of pain. As we know, the prescription of opioids for chronic pain contributes to the opioid crisis. Thus, using VR as an alternative treatment for pain is beneficial to arresting the opioid epidemic.

Despite the application of virtual reality for addiction treatment, it is essential to highlight the need for comprehensive management. That is to say, adding other helpful treatments increases the chances of success. These additions can be Medication-Assisted Treatment, regular counseling, and support groups. Also, support from family and friends is vital for success.


Personalizing the Virtual Reality Experience for Addiction Treatment

An excellent approach to addiction treatment is to personalize the experience. This technique is vital as no two individuals are the same. Besides, environmental factors and situations differ.

Proponents of VR infer that it can help addiction professionals identify personal reasons for addiction. Previous trauma, family history, and pessimism are some hurdles people face. Perhaps, these maybe some of the reasons they continue to struggle with their addictions.

Identifying the root causes of addiction is vital in the recovery process. For this reason, ways to help tease this out will likely go a long way in improving their recovery process. Exploring different virtual worlds as well as reactions to these scenarios may shed some light on many factors. These may help addiction professionals to better understand and help people in their addictions.

There are several available VR platforms. AppliedVR is one of such systems that helps with breath training, guided relaxation, instant escape, mindfulness, and pain education. BehaVR is another system that augments addiction recovery programs.


Addiction Treatment Programs Using Virtual Reality

As earlier stated, virtual reality in addiction treatment is not yet the standard. There are many ongoing studies on the benefits of VR. However, there are cases of responses to virtual reality therapy. As a result of these benefits, some treatment programs currently offer this service.

Below are a few addiction treatment facilities that offer virtual reality for addiction treatment. This list does not indicate that we recommend this treatment or the facilities. It is merely a list of randomly picked facilities for people interested in this technology. Some of such facilities are:

Again, we neither endorse nor dismiss virtual reality for addiction treatment. It remains more of an experimental therapy with ongoing researches. Soon, researchers will likely give us updates on their studies.


Virtual Reality (VR) and addiction treatment



Virtual reality (VR) is an artificial environment that is created with software. It is usually experienced using a headset that generates virtual worlds. It has multiple applications in healthcare, the car industry, space travel, and education.

In recent years, there have been ongoing researches on VR for addiction treatment. Virtual reality therapy involves exposure to a particular set of stressors and triggers. It takes place in a safe environment with a healthcare professional.

VR therapy enables individuals to face fears, trauma, or triggers. At the same time, however, they learn coping mechanisms. This learning occurs while in a safe environment.

Virtual reality for addiction treatment cannot and does not work alone. The implications and limits of this technology are still under exploration.  Thus, VR is seen more as an experimental treatment. So far, though, some studies have shown it may offer more good than harm.


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