Aversion Therapy: Is It Effective?

Updated July 21, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Chances are you've probably heard about people using aversion therapy, not to be confused with conversion therapy, even if they didn't call it by that name. Unlike conversion therapy, which conversion therapy statistics show to be harmful and ineffective, aversion therapy can be beneficial for everyone. 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 from addictive behaviors. 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?

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 these lifestyle behaviors makes you feel sick or uncomfortable.

While some forms of therapy rely on positive cues and stimuli to enact change, aversion therapy is a type of therapy in which you receive negative and unpleasant consequences or an undesirable stimulus when you perform the behavior that you are trying to quit. If you are addicted to something and trying to quit the addiction (trying to treat drug addiction or alcohol dependence), there are a number of therapy practices you can try to eliminate the neurobiological mechanism causing the addiction. Something you once enjoyed slowly becomes something that you never want to do again. Aversion therapy aims to give you an overwhelming aversion to not do an undesirable behavior or something you used to have the urge to do. If aversion therapy works, you put your smoking, drinking, gambling, or whatever it is, behind you. Aversive 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 traditional aversion therapy?" a part of the answer lies in a combination of 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. This is part of something called aversive therapy or aversive conditioning. 

Although it is still used today, the latest evidence based research that is the most famous is still that of Pavlov. 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. Perhaps you like the calming effects of smoking. 

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. This is called emetic therapy. The most commonly used medication 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 experience negative physical reactions and become violently ill, creating a chemical aversion to alcohol. 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, creating a chemical aversion to drinking. A similar thing can be done with rapid smoking, leading to a feeling of aversive smoking and helping quit the habit.
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 leading to professional medical advice, to ensure a more predictable result.

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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. The different forms of aversion therapy seem 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.

Brief modern history has shown us there are a few instances of aversion therapy that are considered extremely controversial and harmful without evidence of being successful in the long term. One of these is electric shock therapy, which has been medically reviewed as dangerous in a number of research projects. In this type of aversion therapy, the therapist will give a mild electrical shock to the patient whenever they think about a certain topic or participate in a negative behavior.

Another controversial and harmful type of aversion therapy is conversion therapy targeting LGBTQ+ individuals (including lesbian and bisexual women as well as gay and bisexual men). Often conversion therapy is administered to teenage high school students. This is not considered a valid therapy method and can be very harmful to the individual it is used on. More medically reviewed information on the dangers of conversion therapy can be found in a helpful report here, where medical reviewers confirm the dangers of conversion therapy. Furthermore, since 1998, the American Psychiatric Association has opposed any psychiatric treatment, such as "reparative" or conversion therapy.

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 and practice relapse prevention for longterm effectiveness? The best way is to have talk therapy and counseling along with the aversion therapy treatment that addresses your motivations and deeper issues besides just the negative stimulus. As you work with your counselor, you can discover the emotional pain or potential mental illness (such as alcohol use disorder, major depressive disorder, or generalized anxiety disorder) 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 ethical and medically reviewed 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 such as mental illness behind the problem behavior.

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