Aversion Therapy – Addiction Treatment

Introduction – Aversion Therapy

Aversion therapy is a type of behavioural psychotherapy in which an undesirable behaviour pattern of the patient is reduced by conditioning the person to link the behaviour with an undesirable stimulus.

Patients undergoing aversion therapy are made to think of the undesirable experience about the behaviour they enjoy, for e.g. a violent person is shown images of violent crime, or an alcoholic might be made to drink, while drugs or electric shocks are administered simultaneously. In theory, the patients associate their addiction with the negativity of electric shocks or seizures over time.

Uses of Aversion Therapy:

  1. Habits
  2. Smoking
  3. Alcoholism
  4. Gambling
  5. Violence
  6. Homosexuality (previously)
  7. Drug abuse


The chief stimuli used in this treatment are electrical, chemical, or imagined aversive situations.

  1. Electrical therapy- In this type, whenever an undesirable behaviour is displayed, a lightly painful electrical stimulus is given to the patient. This method is used in the treatment of sexual deviations.
  2. Chemical therapy- the patient is given a prescription drug producing unpleasant effects such as nausea,along with the display of undesirable behaviour. This method is used commonly in the treatment of alcoholism. A therapeutic drug and the alcohol when given together cause nausea.
  3. Covert conditioning- in this method, images of undesirable behaviour (e.g., smoking) are combined with images of aversive stimuli (e.g., nausea and vomiting). This reduces the positive mental cues that had been associated with the behaviour.


Aversion therapy is based on the concept of learning theory as in case of all behaviour therapies. The basic principle of this theory is that all the behaviour is learned and an undesirable behaviour can be unlearned under proper circumstances. A branch of learning theory is called as classical conditioning. In this model of learning, an undesirable behaviour is matched with an unpleasant (aversive) stimulus. The patient associates the unpleasant feelings or sensations with that harmful behaviour, resulting in decreasing or stopping the behaviour. This differs from operant conditioning in which a punishment is presented after the harmful behaviour. It may be difficult to associate the punishment with the behaviour sometimes in operant therapy.

The basic principle of this theory is that all the behaviour is learned and an undesirable behaviour can be unlearned under proper circumstances.
The goal of aversion therapy is practical, as the treatment is concerned with change in specific behaviour itself. It does not focus on any unconscious motives toproduce the change. It is supposed to be better than insight oriented approach of therapy.Therefore, aversion therapy is useful in treating various addictions and even benign habits which are part of daily life. The success of treatment depends on the type of behaviour to be changed and also on the characteristics of the aversive stimulus. The treatment can be administered in either outpatient or inpatient settings as a single intervention or as part of a multimodality therapy. Aversion therapy may be self-administered in some exceptional motivated patients.


A variety of aversive stimuliare used as part of this approach which include chemical, pharmacological stimulants as well as electric shock. Sometimes, bad tests, foul odors, and loud noises are also employed as aversive stimuli. The chemicals and medications can generate very unpleasant and physically painful responses. This type of aversive stimulation may be risky for patients with heart or lung diseases. Patients should inform these conditions to the psychiatrist or their doctor before the therapy. More intrusive aversive stimuli are, therefore, administered within inpatient settings under medical supervision.  Faradic current which is safe but uncomfortable is used for electric shock. This is better thanrisking the patient by chemical and pharmacological aversants.

There are some ethical issues involved in the aversion therapy with respect to its nature and use. Also, there are problems like patient acceptance and adverse public perception about the procedure of aversion. The powerful substances intentionally used in this therapy causes side effects like nausea and vomiting. These effects result in poor compliance of the patient with treatment, high dropout rates, hostile and aggressive behaviour, and social relations problems. Social critics and members of the general public sometimes consider this treatment objectionable. Nevertheless, role of this therapy in treating addictions and harmful behaviours is essential.

- Link of interest: Addiction Treatment News on Twitter

This article is not medical advice nor a substitute to professional health advice. Always consult a doctor.


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