How Does Aversion Therapy Work?

Updated October 29, 2022 by ReGain Editorial Team


Wondering If Aversion Therapy May Be Right For You?

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 a therapist, 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 of behavioral 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

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 modification using 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.

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?

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.

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