What Is Aversion Therapy And How Can It Help?

Updated September 04, 2018

Chances are you've probably heard about people using aversion therapy, even if they didn't call it by that name. This form of therapy can take many forms, from home remedies to stop nail biting to medications to overcome alcohol addiction. For many, it's a last-ditch effort to take control of their lives. If you feel you're ready to put your bad habits and addictions behind you, aversion therapy is worth exploring.

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What Is Aversion Therapy, Anyway?

Before you can understand an aversion therapy definition, you need to know what aversion is. Aversion is a very strong dislike of something. If you're averse to something, you may be disgusted by it, fearful of it, or just plain revolted by it. Just the thought of it makes you feel sick or uncomfortable.

Now, to define aversion therapy. Aversion therapy is a type of therapy in which you receive negative and unpleasant consequences when you do the thing you're trying to quit. Something you once enjoyed slowly becomes something you never want to do again. Each time you get the urge to do it, you feel that overwhelming revulsion for it. If this method works, you put your smoking, drinking, gambling, or whatever it is, behind you.

The Science Behind Aversion Therapy

When you ask, "What is aversion therapy?" a part of the answer lies in the science of behavioral psychology. It is based on the science of classical conditioning. Classical conditioning is a way of learning. When you associate one thing with another, you come to expect the second thing when you experience the first.

The most famous experiment involving classical conditioning was a study conducted by a researcher named Pavlov. Pavlov paired the ringing of a bell with giving his dogs meat. After several days of this, the dogs salivated whenever they heard the bell, even before Pavlov brought out the meat. Eventually, the dogs salivated on hearing the bell even if the meat wasn't brought out for several times. They had effectively learned that bell and meat went together.

However, eventually this conditioned response faded in a process Pavlov called extinction. Each time they heard the bell and didn't receive the meat, they learned that those two stimuli didn't necessarily go together. This is an important thing to remember when it comes to aversion therapy. More on that later.

How Aversion Therapy Works

What do you get out of continuing with your bad habits and addictions? You must be receiving something you like, or you wouldn't continue doing it. Perhaps if you bite your nails, you do it because it helps you focus your energy away from anxiety. Perhaps you like the chemical rush that comes from smoking or drinking. If you're habitually violent, you might enjoy the thrill of having power over someone else.

The goal of aversion therapy is to train your mind to jump to rejection of the substance or habit immediately, before you have a chance to feel that excitement or relief the bad habit has given you in the past. This can be accomplished in several ways.

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One way to introduce unpleasant associations with a bad or self-destructive behavior is to take medications. The most commonly used is Antabuse. When an alcoholic takes Antabuse, they feel fine as long as they don't consume alcohol. However, the moment they take a drink of liquor, they become violently ill. Their gastrointestinal system is so strongly affected that even rinsing with a mouthwash containing a small amount of alcohol can produce the effect. Eventually, the person who takes Antabuse fears the bad feeling so much that the mere thought of drinking makes them begin to feel ill.

Shock Treatments

Some psychologists use electric shock as the stimulus they pair with the behavior you want to quit. If you're a compulsive gambler, the therapist might ask you to picture some specific part of the gambling experience while they administer shocks. This method has also been used for behaviors such as pedophilia and violence.

At one point, many therapists believed that homosexuality was a deviant behavior. This type of shock therapy was used to train them not to act on their sexual urges. The practice has now been vilified now that the scientific community largely adheres to the concept that homosexuality is not deviant but is just a different type of sexuality.

Verbal Aversion Therapy

Verbal aversion therapy, also called covert sensitization, doesn't use physical stimuli to produce the negative consequence. Instead, the therapist instructs the client to visualize something repulsive being associated with their bad behavior. If they want to stop eating too much candy, the therapist might suggest that they imagine that candy being covered in something disgusting like maggots. If their imagination is vivid enough, this can bring the same result as a drug like Antabuse.

Other Punishing Consequences

For nail biting, you can try to do aversion therapy on your own by purchasing a special nail polish that has a horrible taste. You come to associate that bad taste with biting your nails. The kinds of punishing consequences a therapist might suggest are only limited by the therapist's creativity and ethical considerations. However, most therapists opt for negative stimuli that have been studied by researchers, to ensure a more predictable result.

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What Do You Want to Quit Doing?

You can stop virtually any behavior you want to if aversion therapy works for you. You will want to make sure that you never want to do the behavior again. For example, if you're a sex addict, aversion therapy probably isn't the right answer for you unless you want to become celibate. Still, there are many bad habits you might be able to conquer through aversion therapy.

  • Smoking
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Biting your nails
  • Drug abuse
  • Gambling
  • Overeating

Is Aversion Therapy Ethical?

In at least some instances, aversion therapy has been misused horribly. The case of trying to convert homosexuals to heterosexuals has been clearly destructive to the people who underwent such treatment. Why? It was destructive to a very basic part of their psyche. It punished them for being themselves. It prevented them from enjoying healthy sexual experiences. This is one instance of the unethical use of aversion therapy.

Although this is an obvious and flagrant misuse of aversion therapy, many people in the psychological profession believe that all aversion therapy is unethical. They feel it is wrong to do something to a patient that is painful and might cause lasting harm. Understanding that aversion therapy only addresses the behavior, many believe that it fails to solve the deeper issues behind the behavior. Because of this, the client may simply choose another bad behavior to replace the one they are no longer doing.

In addition, the research showing that aversion therapy has any long-term benefit is skimpy. It seems to work for some people and some bad habits or addictions, but the effect is typically short term unless the person also receives counseling to prevent relapses. The evidence that shock treatments are effective is particularly lacking. The person learns to avoid thoughts of the behavior while in the therapist's office but as soon as they leave, they know it is safe to engage in it.

Therapists are required to have you sign a consent form before you receive aversion therapy. However, many therapists believe that this is not good enough. Their solution is to have you administer the negative consequence yourself.

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What to Do When Aversion Therapy Isn't Enough

If it's true that aversion therapy is only a limited or short-term solution, how can you get a benefit from it? The best way is to have counseling along with the aversion treatment that addresses your motivations and deeper issues. As you work with your counselor, you can discover the emotional pain behind your compulsion or addiction. You can create a lasting change within yourself. The aversion therapy gets you started, and the therapy helps you live without the habit in the long run.

Finding a Therapist to Help

You can find a therapist in your local community to help you with aversion treatments. You'll need to find out which therapists your insurance covers, if it covers this type of therapy for your behavior at all. One problem that may come up is that the aversion therapy works while you're at the therapist's office but not in your daily life. This is a chance you take when you go to one particular place to have the therapy.

The good news is that you can have therapy wherever you like by choosing online counseling with Better Help. For people who tend to do the behavior mostly at home, online therapy is ideal. You may even be able to have aversion therapy at locations where the urge to do that behavior most often happens.

The therapist can't administer shock treatments or medications. However, they can do covert sensitization. They can also help you deal with the larger issues behind the problem behavior, so you can be free from it once and for all.

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