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What is Aversion Therapy?

Allison Boelcke
By
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Aversion therapy is the process of using unpleasant stimuli to eliminate undesirable habits or self-destructive behaviors. It is based on the psychological theory of behavioral learning that states most behaviors are learned and therefore, can be changed. Aversion therapy can be used for nearly any habit or behavior, but tends to be implemented most often for treating substance addiction and rehabilitating sex offenders.

Many types of therapy tend to be relationship-centered. Therapists may have personal sessions with clients and offer advice and suggestions on how to improve coping or decision making skills. Aversion therapy differs because it is typically only behavior-centered. Therapists work with clients to solely change their physical reactions to destructive behaviors or addictions.

Aversion is the feeling of extreme dislike or hate. The central belief of the therapy is that a therapist can guide a client into feeling aversion toward something they are addicted to. A negative stimulus is combined with the undesired habit, known as the target stimulus.

There are three main negative stimuli that can be implemented, although aversion therapists may develop customized plans for individual clients. Chemical stimuli is the use of medication with unpleasant side effects, such as nausea. Olfactory stimuli is the exposure to a bad smell, such as ammonia. The most common stimuli are electric shocks that are given through a device attached to the arm or leg.

Aversion therapy begins with a medical exam to determine which methods are safe for a client to be exposed to. Cljients with heart problems are not recommended to be electrically shocked. Prior to the therapy, a client signs a document of informed consent stating he or she is aware of the procedure and agrees to it.

During a therapy session, the client is exposed to his or her target stimulus. The exposure can be visual by using photographs or physical objects. It can also be verbal, in which the client describes a fantasy about the target stimulus. As the client is exposed to the target stimulus, the therapist introduces the negative stimulus. The process is repeated over an indefinite period in the hopes that the client's brain will eventually associate the negative stimulus with the target stimulus, thus making it lose its pleasure.

Critics of aversion therapy argue that it is dangerous and unethical. They feel the therapy can be misused and turn into cruelty. Other critics claim the process is simply ineffective and may contribute to hostile client behavior.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Allison Boelcke
By Allison Boelcke
Allison Boelcke, a digital marketing manager and freelance writer, helps businesses create compelling content to connect with their target markets and drive results. With a degree in English, she combines her writing skills with marketing expertise to craft engaging content that gets noticed and leads to website traffic and conversions. Her ability to understand and connect with target audiences makes her a valuable asset to any content creation team.
Discussion Comments
By anon304988 — On Nov 23, 2012

As an 18 year old who had electric shock AT in 1972, I can tell you that it has resulted in me having PTSD, dissociation problems and depression all my life.

By mandJesus — On Aug 11, 2012

I also recognize that all people are different and therefore are going to require different kinds of therapy. A.T. is appropriate for some clients and not for others, but therapists should not be unwilling to utilize a.t. simply because they wouldn't want it used on them.

By mandJesus — On Aug 11, 2012

I have to totally agree with sneakers41. As one with both a B.S. in psychology and addictive behaviors, I can clearly see the advantages to aversion therapy. I believe that many therapists are opposed to AT for a variety of reasons including: fear of lawsuits; lack of a clear understanding of compulsive behavior; an inability to recognize how powerfully strong a grip on someone's life an addiction can have; and how manipulative an addict can be to those who either love him/her or are trying to help them.

As for icecream17's question of what happens when the addict leaves the therapist's office, why do you think Pavlov's dogs salivated at the sound of a bell? Conditioning, conditioning, conditioning!

By Moldova — On Feb 12, 2011

Icecream17 -I agree with you. While the patient has to take ownership of their behavior in order to successfully make a transformation, this type of therapy does not allow that growth to take place because the change is superficial.

Meaningful change takes time and I think the use a cognitive behavioral therapy might be more effective in the long run because it teaches the patient how to replace the negative behaviors of the addiction with positive behaviors that will allow them to treat the addiction over the long haul.

I feel that addiction is a lifelong process that you will never totally be cured of so a short term strategy like aversion therapy does not seem worth it.

If it works for some people that is great, but I think more people are willing to change when they receive motivating messages in which they feel that they are making progress in the right direction.

By icecream17 — On Feb 10, 2011

Sneakers41 - I have to disagree because I do see some problems with aversion therapy. The aversion therapy psychology sounds good in theory but in reality it is a different story.

The use of ingesting something that makes a patient vomit or giving a patient mild electric shocks while attempting to engage in the frowned upon behavior is a little cruel.

They have done studies that show that this form of therapy actually makes a person develop higher levels of anxiety and many become angry and combative during therapy.

Also, what happens after they leave the therapist’s office? I don’t know how effective this type of therapy is because it does not put the responsibility for the changed behavior on the patient.

They are forced to change because of some artificial stimuli that are not going to be there in the real world.

I think that this type of therapy might even turn off someone that is seeking help and they may not return to get therapy because of the negative experience which would be a bad thing.

By sneakers41 — On Feb 08, 2011

I don’t think that aversion therapy is cruel. As a matter of fact using aversion therapy for alcoholism and drug addiction might be worthwhile because these addictions are so hard to break and they are so destructive to a person’s well being.

I rather see someone go to alcohol aversion therapy and try to turn their life around then worrying about if it is cruel to subject a person to this therapy.

I think that it is worse for the person suffering from an addiction like this to continue doing what they are doing. Sometimes people can only respond to shock therapy.

Allison Boelcke
Allison Boelcke
Allison Boelcke, a digital marketing manager and freelance writer, helps businesses create compelling content to connect with their target markets and drive results. With a degree in English, she combines her writing skills with marketing expertise to craft engaging content that gets noticed and leads to website traffic and conversions. Her ability to understand and connect with target audiences makes her a valuable asset to any content creation team.
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