For many years therapists and counselors have used various forms of psychodrama, such as role-playing and dramatization, to help treat addiction. A recent development hopes to extend and improve on this approach by using virtual reality (VR) technology.
Understanding the Method
Psychodrama offers a creative way for an individual or group to explore and solve personal problems. Jacob L. Moreno first developed the method and encouraged patients to use dramatization in therapeutic settings. Participants reenacted real-life situations or inner mental processes through the use of theater-type elements, including props.
These dramatic presentations allow patients to investigate and gain insight into their own lives. In particular, it provides an opportunity to evaluate their own behavior, reflect on how past incidences played out and better understand their choices and inclinations in those situations.
The goal is that people will develop effective coping strategies and then take those strategies back to the real world. When people recovering from substance abuse apply these coping mechanisms, they get better faster and stay sober longer.
Therapy Versus Reality
One of the drawbacks inherent in traditional psychodrama is the obvious disconnect between a pretend situation and real life. Simply put, patients know they are in a therapist’s office and the drugs aren’t actually there.
The therapeutic environment and lack of other realism are poor imitations of real-life challenges that can trigger a relapse or other addictive behaviors. This has a tendency to reduce the effectiveness of role-playing and similar techniques. Patients certainly learn useful coping skills, but they may lack confidence in them when confronted with powerful temptations in real world settings.
Advantages of Virtual Reality
This is where virtual reality presents some possible advantages over traditional psychodrama. Of course, virtual reality is still merely an artificial environment. But by using technology to create ultra-realistic surroundings and scenarios, patients are able to get a clearer picture of what they will actually face outside of therapy.
When the environments are more immersive, it helps patients transfer what they learn in therapy to the real world. Additionally, the VR worlds are highly customizable and can be tailored to mimic triggers for specific individuals, including sights, sounds and smells. If they feel truly tempted with the drug, due to such virtual recreations, the quality of the interventions and confidence in the learned skills improve dramatically.
Does It Really Work?
Until recently, most virtual reality therapy applications and studies involved treating phobias and anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Treatments for these conditions using VR have proven quite effective.
New research is being done that focuses on testing and treating addiction to drugs such as cocaine and heroin, as well as nicotine addiction and alcohol dependence. Under the direction of Stephen Bordnick, the University of Houston launched the Virtual Reality Clinical Lab specifically to study addictive behaviors and to find interventions.
According to Bordnick, an initial feasibility study focused on nicotine addiction has shown great promise. After undergoing a ten-week treatment program, participants in a VR therapy group reported significantly lowered rates for use and craving of nicotine.
It’s still far too early to announce success; there needs to be additional study before making any far-reaching conclusions. But researchers are quick to point out that even if VR never replaces traditional addiction treatments, it has already proven itself to be a useful complement and powerful ally alongside counseling, medications and rehab.