Aversion therapy is a method of therapeutic treatment in which a person is conditioned to dislike a certain stimulus because of its repeated pairing with an unpleasant stimulus. For instance, a person venturing to quit smoking might pinch his or her skin every time he or she craves a cigarette.
What to expect?
Aversion therapy is based upon the theory of classical conditioning proposed by Ivan Pavlov. Classical conditioning is when someone unconsciously or automatically learn a behavior due to a specific stimuli. In other words, one learns to respond to something based on repeated interactions with it.
How does aversion therapy work?
Aversion therapy employs conditioning but focuses on creating a negative response to an undesirable stimulus so that a person wishes to avoid, such as drinking alcohol or using drugs. Several times, in people with substance use disorders, the body is conditioned to receive pleasure from the substance — for instance, it tastes good and makes one feel good. In aversion therapy, the idea is to change this conditioning. The exact way of performing aversion therapy depends on the undesirable behavior or habit that’s being treated. One very commonly used aversive therapy is chemical aversion for alcohol use disorder. The aim of the therapy is to reduce a person’s craving for alcohol with chemically-induced nausea. In chemical aversion, a doctor/therapist administers a drug that causes nausea or vomiting if the person being treated drinks alcohol. The process is repeated until the person begins to associate drinking alcohol with feeling ill and no longer craves alcohol. Other cases that have been used for aversion therapy include:
- electrical shock
- an unpleasant smell or taste
- another type of physical shock, like from a rubber band snapping
- negative imagery (sometimes through visualization)
Who’s this therapy for?
Aversion therapy is believed to be helpful for people wishing to quit a behavior or habit, typically one those behaviour which is interfering with their life negatively. In-spite of a lot of research has been done on aversion therapy and alcohol use disorder, other uses for this type of therapy have included:
- eating disorders
- other substance use disorders
- self-injurious and aggressive behaviors
- oral habits, such as nail biting
- certain inappropriate sexual behaviors, such as voyeuristic disorder
While the in a study it is found that 69 percent of participants reported sobriety 1 year after treatment, a longer-term study would help to see if it lasted past that first year. It’s believed that the lack of long-term benefit occurs in case of aversion therapy, because most aversion therapy happens in-office. When one is away from the office, the aversion is harder to maintain. While aversion therapy may be extremely effective in the short-term for alcohol, there have been mixed results for other uses.
Role of a therapist:
Aversion therapist practices a type of counter conditioning treatment. A similar one is called exposure therapy, which proceeds by exposing a person to something they fear. Sometimes these two types of therapies are combined for a better outcome. Therapists may also proceed by combining other types of behavioral therapy, along with rehabilitation programs for substance use disorders. For many people who experiencing addiction, support networks can also help to keep them on track with recovery. Medication is sometimes prescribed in some cases, including for smoking cessation, mental health conditions, and obesity.
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