How Does Aversion Therapy Work?

Published on: 07 Oct 2020

Updated on 8/10/2021

People of all ages have common addictive habits that they wish to break free from — smoking, nail-biting, alcohol addiction, and substance abuse, among others. Some people are able to stop these habits with just a strong resolution to do so, but for many others, dropping an addictive behavior can be a struggle.

Talkspace therapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, LCSW-C, CMHIMP, EMDR says “For my clients experiencing substance use, self-injurious, or aggressive behaviors, one of the best approaches to help them heal and reduce or eliminate a negative behavior is to help them dislike a specific stimulus by pairing it with an unpleasant stimulus. Aversion therapy may not be acceptable for some conditions, but it is highly effective and beneficial for addictions and anger management.”

People have employed countless measures while trying to break free of their addictions. If you’ve tried most of the more common approaches and found them to be ineffective, there are other reliable options worth considering. One of these options is aversion therapy.

What Is Aversion Therapy?

Aversion therapy is a type of behavioral treatment intervention that is used to eliminate unwanted behaviors, bad habits, or self-destructive traits by pairing these behaviors with an unpleasant stimulus. This therapeutic approach is based on the notion that the unwanted behavior is learned, and thus it can also be unlearned with proper ‘conditioning.’ Aversion therapy trains the patient’s brain to associate an undesired behavior with something unpleasant to reverse the positive association and establish an aversion to that behavior.

Aversion behavior therapy works by making a person develop a strong dislike or repulsion for an unwanted behavior, linking it with an unpleasant stimulus. For this connection to be made, the impact of the stimulus must occur immediately or soon after the unwanted behavior.

Talkspace therapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, LCSW-C, CMHIMP, EMDR says, “To support my clients, I prefer to use simple activities such as wearing an elastic band, where the person snaps the band to create a slightly painful reminder or holding an ice in their hand for a few seconds; this helps them to recondition their thoughts and behaviors.”

Who Is Aversion Therapy For?

Since aversion behavioral therapy is used to eliminate unwanted habits, it has more limited uses than other types of psychotherapy. It is most frequently recommended for people who are dealing with:

  • Alcohol addiction or substance abuse
  • Compulsive nail biting
  • Smoking
  • Gambling
  • Anger problems
  • Violent behavior

Although aversion therapy can be used to help eliminate almost any type of undesirable behavior and assist behavior modification, this treatment method is more commonly applied at drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs.

Talkspace therapist Liz Kelly, LICSW says, “For my clients who are working on limiting their alcohol consumption, our work together will often involve visualizing the undesirable impact of drinking alcohol like looking sloppy, feeling out of control, and being hungover and anxious. This helps my clients manage their cravings and create new habits.”

In some cultures, religions, and other groups where homosexuality is considered immoral or unacceptable, aversion therapy had often been used to form an aversion towards these desires and ‘convert’ the client to heterosexuality. However, the use of aversion therapy with the aim of ‘treating’ homosexuality is considered unethical and has been labelled a violation by both the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association.

How Does Aversion Therapy Work?

During aversive therapy, the client may be asked to engage in the undesirable habit or behavior while simultaneously being exposed to an unpleasant stimulus such as a bad taste, a foul smell, or even mild electric shocks. In some cases, the behavior doesn’t necessarily have to take place before the stimulus is applied. The therapist may have the client think of themselves engaging in the behavior while the stimulus is administered.

For instance, aversion therapy for clients who wish to deal with alcohol addiction involves a prescription of specialty tryptophan metabolites, under the supervision of a physician. When taken regularly, the metabolites prevent regular processing of alcohol within the body, causing a bout of digestive issues and other side effects. Similarly, individuals who constantly bite their nails may eventually drop the habit if they experience an awful taste from a topical formula applied to their nails.

The entire process is done repeatedly over the course of several sessions, until the client eventually stops associating pleasure with the undesirable behavior and begins to associate it with the displeasing experience caused by the stimulus.

Is Aversion Therapy Effective?

Aversion therapy can be effective, but the success rate depends on several factors, and especially on access to a follow-up program. A follow-up program can help the client with relapse prevention and increase the longevity of recovery by ensuring long-term benefits.

The type of behavior to be corrected also plays a role in the effectiveness of aversion therapy, as it tends to be more effective with some behaviors than others. The stimulus used in therapy is another factor, as the use of electric shocks tends to be less effective than the use of nausea-inducing chemicals.

Aversion Therapy Criticisms and Controversies

Aversion therapy has not gone without its own fair share of criticism and controversy over the years. One frequent argument made against this aversion treatment is that it focuses on behavior only, ignoring the psychological factors behind the unwanted behavior. Critics of aversion therapy argue that this often makes the treatment short-lived.

Aversion therapy has also been criticized for the use of unpleasant stimuli in the course of aversion treatment. Some argue that this practice isn’t just unethical, but downright cruel and can be traumatic as well.

There is also a lack of thorough research material that supports the effectiveness of aversion therapy. A lot of the research that has been done over the years shows mixed results compared to other types of therapy, and it’s simply not enough to deter valid criticism about how successful it is.

Despite the valid points made by aversion therapy critics, it is still widely used to correct several types of unwanted habits, and is used especially for addiction treatment. Traditional aversion therapy works effectively for many people.

What to Know Before Starting Aversion Therapy

After you’ve made the decision to try traditional aversion therapy, the next step is to consult your provider to make sure you’re comfortable with the course of treatment before therapy begins — there can be several unpleasant side effects from the aversive stimulation used in the course of treatment.

It is advisable to go through a medical exam in order to make sure that the stimulus being used is safe for you. For instance, if you have a heart condition, it may be inadvisable to involve the use of electric shocks in your treatment. So too, a person with a gastrointestinal illness may also not respond favorably to nausea-inducing chemicals.

Note that your therapist is required to educate you on how aversion therapy works and inform you about the methods to be used in treatment so you know exactly what to expect. Most importantly, your consent is essential before you begin treatment. You’ll be required to sign a consent form stating that you’re aware of the procedure involved, and that you agree to participate fully in the treatment.

If you’re interested in getting rid of an unwanted habit through aversion therapy, it’s important to work only with a licensed mental health professional who has the necessary training and experience in this field. Once you find a qualified expert, you can speak to them about what you’re looking for in your treatment plan and express any concerns you may have. This process will help you figure out if aversion therapy is the best option for you.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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