What Is Aversion Therapy?

By Julia Thomas|Updated May 18, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Lindi Herrin, LPC

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.

What Is It, 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.

Aversion therapy is a type of therapy in which you receive negative and unpleasant consequences when you perform the behavior that you are trying to quit. Something you once enjoyed slowly becomes something that you never want to do again. Each time you get the urge to do it, you feel that overwhelming aversion for it. If aversion therapy works, you put your smoking, drinking, gambling, or whatever it is, behind you. This therapy is vastly different than your typical online therapy, so read on to learn more.

The Science Behind Aversion Therapy

When you ask, "What is aversion therapy?" a part of the answer lies in the science of behavioral therapy and psychotherapy. Aversion therapy 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. 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 It Works

What do you get out of continuing with your bad habits and addictions? You must be receiving some form of a reward, 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 and perhaps you like the chemical rush that comes from smoking or drinking.

The goal of aversion therapy is to train your mind 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. Aversion therapy can help this get accomplished in several ways


One way to introduce aversion therapy 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 and the mere thought of drinking makes them begin to feel ill.

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 that can be associated with the behavior. For example, If the goal is to stop eating candy, the therapist might suggest that they imagine candy being covered in something disgusting.

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 will 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.

What Do You Want to Quit Doing?

There are many bad habits that aversion therapy can address including.

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

Is Aversion Therapy Ethical?

In the psychological profession aversion therapy must be used by a professional. Aversion therapy addresses the behavior and many believe that it fails to solve the deeper issues behind the behavior. Therefore, the current bad behavior may be replaced with a significantly worse behavior.

In addition, the research showing that aversion therapy has any long-term benefit is minimal. Aversion therapy seems to work for some people but the effect is typically short term unless the person also receives counseling to prevent relapses. At times, the individual 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. Many therapists prefer the solution is to have you administer the negative consequence yourself.

What to Do When It 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 therapy 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 therapy treatments.

The good news is that you can have therapy wherever you like by choosing online counseling with BetterHelp. 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 do covert sensitization if they are trained and only doctors can prescribe medications. Therapists can also help you deal with the larger issues behind the problem behavior.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs):
What is an example of aversion therapy?
The effectiveness of aversion therapy is best revealed when used to treat substance use disorders-- for example, when you have an unwanted behavior or pattern you are trying to break, such as an alcohol use disorder or attempting to reach smoking cessation, aversion conditioning would administer an electric shock every time you viewed an image of a cigarette or alcohol.
What is aversion therapy and how does it work?
The use of aversion therapy is basically fostering an aversion in lifestyle treatments and stimuli for patients in psychiatry. For example a person with substance use disorder might take a nausea inducing pill (such as disulfiram) when they are exposed to alcohol, resulting in behavior modification and relapse rates significantly decreasing for patients with this disorder. While the treatment of alcoholism may be nausea and vomiting, there are other treatment methods for unwanted behaviors such as skin picking or hair pulling. Finding more information on this treatment whether that be through wikipedia, an article, a data base, or a research page from your state or country is hugely beneficial prior to starting treatment.
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