Virtual Reality Is Revolutionizing Care for Substance Use Disorder

Virtual reality is a powerful tool for therapists who assess and treat a wide range of mental health conditions.

What about substance misuse and addiction? Can addictions and recovery clinicians use VR to improve the quality of care they provide?

The answer is, yes. Studies show that VR can indeed be used to help individuals who struggle with substance use disorder and other addictions. Let’s take a closer look.

Substance Use Disorder Defined

Substance use disorder (SUD) is a broad term that encompasses any problematic patterns of use, abuse, or dependence on substances—despite negative consequences.

It is a complex and serious problem that can have severe implications on an individual’s health, livelihood, and relationships. 

Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol use disorder is the most common form of SUD in the United States.(1) According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), in 2021, 29.5 million Americans had alcohol use disorder.(2) Of this group, 894,000 were adolescents. 

Estimates report that over 140,000 people die from alcohol-related causes annually.(3) Yet less than 20% of people with AUD ever receive any form of treatment.(4)

The Importance of Effective SUD Treatment

According to the CDC, one in seven people in the United States struggles with a substance use disorder.(5)

Many individuals with addictions also have co-occurring mental health disorders, making them even more challenging to treat.(6)

20% of Americans who have an anxiety disorder or depression also struggle with SUD.(7)

But only 7% of patients with a substance use disorder or behavioral addiction receive adequate treatment.(8)

These statistics clearly underscore the need for effective treatment. 

VR may be able to fill the gap. 

Virtual Reality and Substance Use Disorders: How Do Clinicians Use VR?

Virtual Reality is a technological breakthrough in the treatment of behavioral health disorders such as substance use disorder (SUD). 

The technology uses immersive 3D simulations to replicate real-life scenarios, giving clinicians the ability to transport patients into a virtual world and challenge them with realistic simulations.

These engaging environments help behavioral health clinicians assess, plan, and treat a range of behavioral health challenges.

In these carefully constructed virtual worlds, individuals may practice identifying their triggers and cultivate healthy coping skills. Furthermore, counselors can track individual progress over time to identify patterns and develop effective strategies to address problematic behaviors in each session.

Why Is VR Ideal for Helping Behavioral Health Clinicians Treat SUD?

Research suggests that VR can help clinicians who treat SUD in several ways. 

VR-based interventions may help:

– Simulate drug-related cues

– Reduce cravings

– Offer controlled exposure to triggers

– Patients develop coping skills

– Improve adherence to treatment

Simulating Drug-Related Cues

VR has proven to be an ecologically valid way to assess cue reactivity and is effective in triggering cravings in both substance use disorders and behavioral addictions.(8)

The use of VR helps to expose patients to certain cues without the risk of a real-life, high-risk environment.

The ability of VR to induce a response to cues lays the foundation for therapists to introduce and reinforce certain positive behaviors and effective coping skills.

Safe and Controlled Exposures

Therapists can use VR exposure therapy (VRET), to give patients highly personalized, gradual, and controlled exposures.(9

Not only are these exposures safe for the patient, but they also provide an environment that closely resembles a real-world setting.

Relapse is a common occurrence with SUDs. But practicing coping skills is key for recovery. 

The simulated environment is safer than having the patient practice their skills in vivo.(10) Thus, VR can help mitigate the risk by providing an environment in which patients can learn how to handle and cope with cravings. 

Potential to Reduce Cravings

Research has examined the use of virtual reality therapy (VRT) in patients with alcohol dependence. In one study, participants were either given 10 sessions of VR therapy or CBT.

The researchers found that the group that went through VR therapy exhibited a greater decrease in craving after the 10th session compared to the CBT group. This suggests that VRT may be useful as an adjunct to treating alcohol dependence.(11)

Adherence and Effectiveness

One study looked at the effectiveness of a mindfulness and VR-based smoking cessation treatment. 

The researchers found that participants in the mindfulness-based VR therapy had higher rates of abstinence from smoking (23%) compared to the control group (5%).(12)

Developing Coping Skills

Another study conducted a randomized control trial that involved 10 weekly virtual reality skills training (VRST) sessions including gradual exposure to craving and coping skills training. 

The VRST was effective in reducing cigarette consumption and craving compared to nicotine replacement therapy alone. Self-confidence and coping skills were also higher for the VRST group compared to the control group at follow-up.(13)

These insights demonstrate that virtual reality can play a pivotal role in addiction behavioral change. 

Whether it is through developing coping skills, reducing cravings, or boosting self-empowerment, patients stand to benefit from VR integration in therapy sessions.

VR Has High Acceptance Among SUD Counselors

And clinicians are ready to use VR. Research shows that an overwhelming 82% of substance abuse clinicians report wanting to use VR in their practice.(14)

However, the same study found that very few clinicians report using VR in their practices. This is unsurprising. 

While VR has been used by large health organizations for years, it has only just become more accessible and affordable for individual practitioners. 

Amelia Virtual Care allows any practitioner to harness the power of VR in their own practice.

VR Is a Powerful Tool for SUD Clinicians

Virtual reality has a lot to offer behavioral health professionals. VR provides a safe and controlled environment to help patients practice new behaviors, manage cravings, develop coping skills, and boost self-confidence. 

The literature suggests that VR is an effective tool for professionals treating addictions, and has a high acceptance rate among SUD counselors. 

For this reason, Amelia Virtual Care is proud to announce the latest addition to our VR platform: A completely new area dedicated to clinicians who treat substance use disorders. 

If you would like to learn more about this exciting new addition, contact us for a free demo

We would be happy to answer any questions you have and discuss how VR can apply to your practice.


  4. Lohoff F. W. (2022). Targeting Unmet Clinical Needs in the Treatment of Alcohol Use Disorder. Frontiers in psychiatry, 13, 767506. 
  8. Segawa, T., Baudry, T., Bourla, A., Blanc, J. V., Peretti, C. S., Mouchabac, S., & Ferreri, F. (2020). Virtual Reality (VR) in Assessment and Treatment of Addictive Disorders: A Systematic Review. Frontiers in neuroscience, 13, 1409.
  9. Boeldt, D., McMahon, E., McFaul, M., & Greenleaf, W. (2019). Using Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy to Enhance Treatment of Anxiety Disorders: Identifying Areas of Clinical Adoption and Potential Obstacles. Frontiers in psychiatry, 10, 773. 
  10. Skeva, R., Gregg, L., Jay, C., & Pettifer, S. (2021). Views of Practitioners and Researchers on the Use of Virtual Reality in Treatments for Substance Use Disorders. Frontiers in psychology, 12, 606761. 
  11. Lee, S. H., Han, D. H., Oh, S., Lyoo, I. K., Lee, Y. S., Renshaw, P. F., & Lukas, S. E. (2009). Quantitative electroencephalographic (qEEG) correlates of craving during virtual reality therapy in alcohol-dependent patients. Pharmacology, biochemistry, and behavior, 91(3), 393–397. 
  12. Goldenhersch, E., Thrul, J., Ungaretti, J., Rosencovich, N., Waitman, C., & Ceberio, M. R. (2020). Virtual Reality Smartphone-Based Intervention for Smoking Cessation: Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial on Initial Clinical Efficacy and Adherence. Journal of medical Internet research, 22(7), e17571. 
  13. Bordnick, P. S., Traylor, A. C., Carter, B. L., & Graap, K. M. (2012). A Feasibility Study of Virtual Reality-Based Coping Skills Training for Nicotine Dependence. Research on social work practice, 22(3), 293–300.
  14. Wray, T. B., & Emery, N. N. (2022). Feasibility, Appropriateness, and Willingness to Use Virtual Reality as an Adjunct to Counseling among Addictions Counselors. Substance use & misuse, 57(9), 1470–1477.