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How Virtual Reality Can Help Us Deal with Reality

By KELSEY ALLEN

Patrick Bordnick empowers clinicians to bring real-world situations into their clinical space so their patients can practice coping skills in a more authentic context

For many years, Patrick Bordnick would perform role-playing exercises with his clients where he, a licensed clinical social worker, would pretend to be a bartender and offer them a drink. His goal was to prepare his recovery-seeking clients to deal with difficult situations or questions and to empower them to develop the coping skills needed to achieve long-term recovery.

But something didn’t feel quite right to Bordnick.

“I would always sit there as a therapist thinking to myself, ‘Are they buying this? Are they really believing that I’m the bartender, and I’m trying to teach them the skill not to use?’” he admits. “It always felt very strange and awkward to me. No matter how much I learned the lingo, it felt stale to me.”

Today, Bordnick is a pioneer in the use of virtual reality (VR) for substance abuse assessment and intervention. The dean of the Tulane University School of Social Work, Bordnick has more than 20 years of experience in clinical and laboratory research. Using technology to solve real-world problems has been the hallmark of his work.

“He’s easily the foremost researcher on the intersection of VR and substance abuse,” says Ben Lewis, founder and CEO of Limbix, a company that makes VR equipment designed for the treatment of health care problems. “He’s done the most research, the earliest research and arguably the best research on using VR to help treat addiction.”

So how exactly can virtual reality help us deal with reality?

BRIDGING THE GAP

Like any good academic, Bordnick goes back to theory, specifically context-dependent learning, to explain how VR helps bridge the gap between the clinical office and the real world.

“We’re not learning to use substances with the therapist,” Bordnick says. “But learning in one context is better recalled when you’re in a similar context. So when we think about that therapeutically, if I’m trying to teach you a skill not to use a substance in my office, which doesn’t resemble a place you’ve used before, I’m expecting you when you’re in a bar to now recall skills in a context that’s not even close to where you learned how to manage or cope with the cravings.”

Bordnick believes — and research backs up his hypothesis — that VR can be a means for not only studying cravings but also teaching coping skills and relapse prevention strategies to improve recovery rates. By creating virtual environments of common places people relapse, Bordnick can empower clinicians to bring real-world situations into their clinical space so their patients can practice coping skills in a more authentic context.

CREATING REALITY IN VIRTUAL REALITY

To create these virtual environments, Bordnick partnered with Limbix, which works with many leading research institutions to create VR treatments for anxiety, trauma, depression, chronic pain and addiction, among others. Limbix VR environments are built from panoramic images and videos, rather than animated graphics, which helps the VR scenes feel more authentic.

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