How Technology Helps Those Struggling with an Addiction

Posted by Lexie Lu on Oct 27, 2016 10:03:42 AM

In 2014, 22.5 million people in  the U.S., from 12 years old and up, needed treatment for a drug or alcohol addiction, but only 11% of them (2.6 million people) actually received treatment at specialty treatment programs. Recent technological advances have begun to supplement treatment; from apps to VR, technology has began to make treatment more accessible to those suffering from addiction. 

Addiction Recovery Applications

Most people have some form of smart device, like a phone or tablet, that they have regular access to. Studies have shown that upwards of 64% of American adults own a smartphone. It’s an easy and accessible way for patients and healthcare professionals to stay in contact with one another. Thanks to new treatment programs that are emerging and evolving, smartphones are also becoming an invaluable tool for the treatment of addiction.

Rehabilitation facilities can be expensive, especially if the patient needs extensive treatment, and it's not something everyone's medical insurance covers. Support groups are helpful, but not everyone has a sponsor or is able to find a meeting when they need help. This leaves these individuals feeling helpless and unsure about the next step toward recovery.

Apps like Addicaid and Twelve Steps – The Companion are designed to assist people through their recovery. The Twelve Steps app acts like an assistant for people who are going through the Twelve Steps program, providing instant access to tools and techniques that can be useful during recovery.


This type of application can be used for everything from tracking the number of days a person has remained sober to providing meditation techniques, daily affirmations, or even the times and locations of local AA or NA meetings.

Note that this isn’t a substitute for the actual treatment and support that’s necessary to recover from an addiction. While a smartphone may never replace traditional addiction recovery treatments, it’s a useful tool that shouldn’t be overlooked.

EMDR Therapy

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR therapy, is a technique that is built on the theory that the mind can repair itself after sustaining damage, much like how your skin heals when you scrape your knee. It works by using a mixture of predetermined sights and sounds designed to stimulate certain parts of the brain to help the sufferer discover the root cause of their addiction. Once the cause has been determined, the healing can begin.

Regular EMDR therapy is quite useful, however the patient would need to seek out a treatment facility. What if someone could use this therapy at home without the assistance of a medical professional? Virtual EMDR therapy eliminates the travel and allows the patient to receive the same type of results. Through various clinical studies, more than “70% of the participants no longer demonstrated their symptoms after as few as three session of virtual EMDR.”

While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence supporting the use of EMDR for substance abuse treatment, the technique hasn’t been around long enough for researchers to be able to determine its long-term effectiveness. Like any other treatment, it doesn’t always work for everyone, but for those it benefits, EMDR can be the most effective tool in a therapist’s toolbox.

The Heroin Cave

While this might sound like the title of bad horror movie, it’s actually a tool that harnesses virtual reality technology and may prove to be effective in assisting individuals with substance abuse problems.

This unique treatment comes from the minds at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. By utilizing virtual reality headsets, researchers are able to create a virtual heroin den that addiction sufferers can visit as a form of immersion therapy. Using virtual immersion, therapists are able to help individuals learn to resist temptation and triggers, and obtain the skills they will need to resist those same temptations out in the real world.

The team has already had some success in curbing their participant’s cravings for nicotine. They have also discovered that utilizing this technique can trigger the desire to smoke marijuana or drink an alcoholic beverage. While its true effectiveness remains to be seen, when paired with cognitive behavioral therapy, methadone treatments, or other techniques, this VR cave could soon become an essential and invaluable part of addiction treatment and rehabilitation.

Technology-Assisted Care

Technology-assisted care incorporates web-based programs into substance abuse treatment programs. Computer-based therapy, like CBT 4 CBT, which offers a computer-based version of cognitive behavioral therapy, is just one example of new, technology-assisted care that is being offered for individuals across the country. Studies conducted using the online CBT found that individuals who participated in standard treatment plus CBT 4 CBT were more likely to remain sober during treatment.

But again, online treatment options and technology-assisted care are not replacements for traditional treatment.

Why Is It Important?

Why is technology so important for people struggling with addiction? In a word: availability. Not everyone has the means to seek out professional treatment, but as mentioned before, 64% of adults have a smartphone, and basic smartphones can be purchased for $100 or less. In a world connected to social media and instant messaging, seeking immediate help in a time of need becomes a dire scenario for those going through an addiction.

While it can’t replace the assistance that medical professionals offer, a smartphone can be a literal lifeline for people who are suffering from addiction. That support structure is essential to recovery. It provides a place for individuals to turn to during their struggles, a place to talk about problems that are being faced and someone to talk them down off the (literal or figurative) ledge. Smartphones provide a way to stay connected with loved ones or sponsors through phone, text, and email.

Risks vs. Rewards

Studies have already shown the benefits of technology when preventing substance abuse. One such study, designed to test the effectiveness of computer-based training to prevent drug use and other risky behavior in adolescents, found that when done properly and administered in a controlled setting, this type of training can be extremely effective.

But the biggest risk with this style of treatment is that people may turn to their smartphones rather than seeking out professional help. While there are some technology-driven programs being created with the idea of becoming stand-alone treatment options, they are not always effective.

Overall, the introduction of technology into substance abuse treatment options has helped and continues to help those on a daily basis. Having all of those amazing tools available at one’s fingertips could mean the difference between recovery and relapse for thousands of people around the world. Not everyone can afford to go to rehab, but most people already have a smartphone in their pocket.


Lexie Lu is a freelance designer and blogger. She enjoys researching the latest trends and always has a cup of coffee in close proximity. She manages 
Design Roast and can be found on Twitter@lexieludesigner.

Topics: VR, Addiction, Mobile Apps