How Does Aversion Therapy Work? (2023)


Wondering If Aversion Therapy May Be Right For You?

Speak With A Board-Certified Therapist.

Aversion therapy first appeared in 1932, and it has been in use and controversial ever since. This type of conditioning therapy is a treatment where the individual experiences a stimulus and at the same time is exposed to some discomfort. The idea is that the mind will associate discomfort with the behavior that is being treated. This discomfort will eventually discourage the individual from engaging in the unwanted behavior. Aversion therapy is administered by atherapist, psychologist, psychiatrist, or other certified mental health professional. There are many reasons for choosing aversion therapy to be rid of unwanted behavior, but the most common reason for its use recently is addiction.

This type of therapy is behavioral therapy. Behavioral therapies are psychological treatments that are used to change unwanted behavior. Changing unwanted behavior is achieved through conditioning, and conditioning goes back to the theories of classical conditioning. The idea that the mind can be conditioned through association, repetition, and exposure to change unwanted behavior is at the heart of all types ofbehavioral therapy.

Counterconditioning, desensitizing conditioning, aversion therapy, and flooding are all types of behavioral therapy. Each therapy has its strong points, and therapists use these different types of therapy to achieve specific responses. Different people respond differently to therapy, and therefore only a therapist, counselor, or psychologist can advise on the type of therapy that is right for you. Still, there's nothing wrong with doing your research to familiarize yourself with the different types of therapies available to you. Having a general knowledge of each kind will help when you talk to your therapist about the right option for your situation. It will also give you a chance to ask more questions about anything you're uncertain about.

Aversion therapy was once popular for addiction treatment and has also been used to banish other unwanted behavior with varying degrees of success. For those who gamble, smoke, or engage in behaviors ruining their relationships, this type of therapy was once considered effective.

Aversion Therapy for Addiction

(Video) Aversion Therapy In a Nutshell

Addiction can always drastically affect a person's life, but everyone will have a different experience. For some, marriages hit the rocks, friendships suffer, and close family ties break down when addiction is present. Others might experience little to no effect on their daily lives, depending on their type of addiction and how severe it is. Aversion therapy is a behavioral treatment intervention that has had success in dealing with addictive behaviors. The main problem that arises once this therapy helps change the behavior is a relapse. Still, one should keep in mind that that is always possible with any treatment, condition, or addiction. For this reason, if aversion therapy seems like a good treatment option, one shouldn't let the possibility of addiction deter them from trying it. Still, it is important to educate yourself on aversion therapy, how it works, and the possible pros and cons of using it as a treatment option.

Other types of aversion therapy for addiction include electrical aversion techniques and imagery aversion techniques. Electrical aversion works by administering an electrical shock as the individual engages in the unwanted behavior. Aversion imagery techniques use pictures to "shock" or trigger "aversion" as the individual engages in the unwanted behavior. Both techniques assume that eventually, the individual will associate negative things with the unwanted behavior and change the behavior.


Criticisms of electrical and imagery techniques revolve around the effectiveness of the techniques in general. Although many believe that electrical shock and imagery techniques work and create an aversion to addiction, clinical research shows that these aversion therapies are less effective than drug aversion therapy. The effectiveness of these two techniques depends largely on the individual and how they respond.

Most psychologists/psychiatrists, counselors, and therapists agree that relapse rates are high after aversion therapy. Aversion therapies may help those who live with addiction while at the therapist's office, but the therapy is less effective once they leave the office. With relapse rates so high, most, if not all,psychologists and therapists are using newer cognitive-behavioral techniques to treat addiction. Of course, whether or not someone relapses depends on a lot of different factors. Every individual will respond to treatment differently and have various life circumstances that either propel them forward after treatment or, on the opposite end, hold them back.

Aversion Therapy and Compulsive Disorders

Aversion therapy is a behavior modification therapy, and this type of therapy works well for compulsive disorders. Several aversion therapies are used to control compulsive disorders, such as nail-biting, skin picking, hair pulling, and others. Behavior modificationusing aversion therapy can be as simple as snapping a rubber band on the wrist or as intense as receiving an electric shock.

Common aversion therapy for nail biting is applying a bitter-tasting substance to the nail. Once the substance is applied, when the individual bites the nail, they taste the bitter substance, changing unwanted behavior. Research shows that electric shock aversion therapy also works well for nail-biting with an effectiveness of up to 80% success.

There is not much research on electric aversion therapy for hair pulling, but there is little evidence that electric aversion therapy does help deter hair pulling. Other types of obsessive-compulsive and compulsive disorders have been treated with electric shock aversion therapy in the past. The electric shock is applied each time the compulsive behavior is engaged, and this discomfort becomes paired with the unwanted behavior. Once the shock and behavior are paired in mind, the individual no longer wants to engage in the unwanted obsessive-compulsive behavior; at least, this is the theory.


Many therapists and doctors of psychiatry/psychology do not agree with aversion therapy for obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD). Most doctors and therapists agree that the most effective type of treatment for OCD is cognitive-behavioral therapy. The use of painful stimulus to create an aversion to OCD behaviors is usually not the first type of therapy used to treat this problem.

Aversion therapy is listed as a viable treatment for OCD on some websites. Still, most of those in the mental health professionals do not agree with this treatment and agree that exposure and response therapy (ERT) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) work the best and are the first therapies used for OCD treatment.

(Video) Aversion Therapy (A totally different approach for overcoming addiction)

Ethical concerns about the use of painful shocks have made aversion therapy outdated. The field of psychology has made many advances in understanding OCD, and modern therapies have a much greater effect on controlling this anxiety disorder. Simple aversion techniques such as snapping a rubber band on the wrist each time an unwanted behavior surfaces may help an individual re-focus attention, but the electric shock is almost a thing of the past.

Modern Aversion Therapy Alternatives

Exposure and response therapy (ERT) is a modern alternative to the outdated aversion therapy techniques. Exposure and response work better than aversion therapy because it centers on facing the actual problem rather than dealing effectively with the stress when the behavior is not acted upon. Individuals are exposed to the triggers that precipitate the OCD behaviors; then, they are walked through an effective response to the trigger. The individual learns that the stress and anxiety will lower on their own without engaging in the behavior. For example, consider someone afraid of going outside. Using Exposure and Response Therapy, the therapist would slowly guide the person to leave their house. Perhaps they'd start by getting them to go on their porch. Next, they'd walk down to their mailbox. Over time, they'd walk down to neighboring houses and eventually visit the grocery store or a shopping mall. ERT is all about teaching people with compulsive disorders that nothing bad happens when they face what makes them fearful and anxious. When the person keeps leaving their house without anything bad happening, it becomes easier and easier. Eventually, the fears and anxieties don't have the grip over a said person as they once did.

Although some may still offer aversion therapy, most have abandoned it for more progressive and scientific therapies. As the science of psychology grows and expands, so do the treatments and therapies available to those who need them. This is good news for anyone experiencing a mental illness, living with any compulsive disorder, or living with an addiction.

How ReGain Can Help

Wondering If Aversion Therapy May Be Right For You?

Speak With A Board-Certified Therapist.

Are you considering aversion therapy or any other type of therapy for that matter? ReGain is here to help you with whatever goals you have for therapy. You'll be matched with a counselor specializing in your specific area of need or concern. Once matched, you'll be able to meet virtually through phone chats, online video chats, or instant messaging. ReGain is great for those with busy schedules because it runs on your time and schedule. If you have any further questions or are interested in signing up for ReGain, don't hesitate to reach out today.

(Video) Gay Aversion Therapy 1970

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the goal of aversion therapy?

Many therapies treat mental illnesses, includingbehavior therapy, aversion therapy, online therapy, etc. This type of therapy (aversion therapy), based on behavioral psychology, aims to eliminate bad habits, self-destructive behaviors, or other undesirable behaviors (nail-biting or alcohol use) by pairing the behavior with an unpleasant stimulus.

This type of exposure therapy is based on classical behavioral psychology and a famous experiment conducted by Pavlov known as classical conditioning.Pavlov conducted an experiment that involved him ringing a bell before he would feed a group of dogs. Over time, and through this classical conditioning method, the sound of the bell would make the dogs salivate, regardless of if he was going to feed them or not.

Like this form of classical conditioning, behavioral psychology has created aversion treatment or exposure therapy that will eliminate these unwanted habits by using a negative stimulus as a consequence. Over time, the individual taking part in aversion treatment will soon associate the negative stimulus with the habit or addiction they are trying to stop. They may, as a result, develop an intense experience of dislike towards their problem. Therefore, aversion therapy aims to assist people in stopping behaviors or habits they don’t desire to act on.

What is an example of aversion therapy?

The main premise of behavior therapy, aversion therapy, and similar forms of therapy is to help treat the symptoms of mental illness. The goal of aversion therapy is to expose an individual to a negative stimulus that is supposed to form an intense dislike towards a specific addiction such as alcohol, smoking, inappropriate sexual behaviors, drug abuse, gambling, overeating, violent behaviors, or nail-biting.

Over time, aversion conditioning may teach an individual to no longer desire to carry out harmful behaviors. There are many types of aversion therapies, however; one popular example of aversion conditioning is:

  • Emetic therapy for alcohol: Emetic therapy for alcohol involves providing a patient with a drug known as disulfiram. This drug is meant to cause the individual to experience intense side effects when they drink alcohol, including vomiting, intensive headaches, extreme nausea, heart palpitations, and dizziness. Over time, this type of aversion therapy is meant to cause a severe dislike of alcohol for the individual not to feel the need to drink again.

Why is aversion therapy controversial?

While there is evidence that aversion therapy programs effectively treat unwanted and inappropriate behaviors, aversion therapy programs are quite controversial due to ethical reasons.

Here are some of the reasons why people are hesitant towardsaversion therapy programs:

  • The negative stimuli, in some cases, can cause adverse side effects that will cause the individual to suffer. This suffering goes against many ethical codes in clinical psychology and is generally more abrasive than other therapy types.
  • There is no form of online therapy for this treatment, which means it is not readily available to people as other forms of therapy.
  • Some patients may experience symptoms of anxiety, depression, anger, and feelings of being traumatized. This goes against clinical psychology ethical codes meant to provide therapeutic relief, not install overwhelming negative emotions.
  • There are arguments that the treatment efficacy is short-lived, not producing long-lasting results but merely just suppressing the behavior instead. Once the patient leaves, they easily relapse, which can be distressing.

The American Psychiatric Association considers some therapy, aversion therapy, and similar techniques acceptable but disagrees with other techniques. However, they warn not to use these treatments on children, as the risks are too high.

When was aversion therapy developed?

Aversion therapy is a type that has been used since the early 20th century. While there are many types of therapy, aversion therapy is based on behavioral psychology beliefs developed to cause patients to reduce or avoid specific unwanted behaviors such as:

(Video) Aversion Therapy

  • Alcohol and drug use
  • Inappropriate sexual behaviors
  • Overeating
  • Gambling
  • Aggressive and violent behavior
  • Nail-biting
  • Picking skin

Behavioral Psychology

Before we look at who created this type of therapy, aversion therapy, let’s first examine the comprehensive clinical psychology foundation for this type of therapy. Behavior psychology or behaviorism states that psychological disorders result from maladaptive learning. It states that we are all born with a blank slate as human beings, and as we grow and develop, we learn these behaviors over time. Therefore, aversion therapy focuses on the current behavior instead of experiences that lead the individual to develop such behaviors.

Classical conditioning

Classical conditioning theory suggests responses are learned through consistent and repeated associations.

Aversion therapy

Based on these premises, aversion therapy is a comprehensive clinical psychology method that uses this same technique to associate unwanted behavior through repeated exposure and negative stimuli. After this treatment, the hope is that the individual will not desire this behavior or habit. Although the premise of aversion therapy dates back to 1905, this type of treatment was not developed until approximately 1940 to 1950s.

What are aversive techniques?

There are many aversive techniques that therapists might use to help create a negative association with detrimental behaviors. However, here are the more common ones that you will come across:

  • Chemical aversion emetic therapy: The mechanism of chemical aversion uses a drug to induce negative side effects after a negative behavior, like alcohol consumption. An individual will experience severe nausea, dizziness, vomiting, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, and shaking, among other symptoms. Over time, people will no longer desire to have a drink of alcohol or drugs.
  • Electric shock aversion therapy: This type of aversion therapy uses an electric shock attached to a part of the patient’s leg, arm, or genital area. The premise of this therapy is to administer a shock every time the individual displays this behavior.
  • Olfactory aversion therapy:This type of therapy will utilize an intense and foul odor administered every time the individual behaves in a specific way that is deemed deviant.


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