What is aversion therapy and what are some examples of this therapeutic approach? The subject of our post here truly is a unique concept in behavior modification approaches. For those interested, let’s take a closer look.
The Basics of Aversion Therapy
Aversion is the predisposition of one to not like or even be deterred by a specific object or concept. Consequently, therapy through aversion is defined as “therapy intended to suppress an undesirable habit or behavior by associating the habit or behavior with a noxious or punishing stimulus.”
In other words, aversion therapy is a way of fixing bad habits. Whether it’s smoking, drinking, gambling or overeating, aversion therapy can be utilized to re-direct your urges and stop unwanted behaviors.
Aversion therapy is used by many professionals in the field of psychology, including counselors, addiction therapists and even licensed hypnotists. It can be a specialization or just one of many forms of treatment offered at a clinic or rehab facility. You might also see it called “aversive therapy” or “aversive conditioning.”
Important note: Aversion therapy is sometimes referred to as a “habit reversal method,” but this label isn’t exclusive to aversion therapy and can include other methods unrelated to it.
The Pros and Cons of Aversion Therapy
As with any psychological treatment, there are both pros and cons to aversion therapy.
One of the biggest benefits is related to brain chemistry. The principle behind aversion therapy is that it changes the brain’s response to certain stimuli, so instead of associating an unwanted habit with good things like satisfaction or stress relief, you’ll associate it with bad things like shocks, noises and unpleasant images. In scientific terms, this is called “reducing positive cues.” It means that you aren’t just avoiding or exercising self-control over bad habits; you’re rewiring the way that your brain sees them on a fundamental level.
Another potential advantage to aversion therapy is its effectiveness. It’s seen good results in a number of clinical trials related to smoking, drinking and weight loss. While it hasn’t been studied as much as other techniques, there’s enough evidence to call it an established method for breaking bad habits.
The cons of aversion therapy are usually related to ethics. There’s an ongoing debate over the morality of aversion therapy, especially in the context of doctors delivering painful treatments to their patients. This question becomes especially relevant when the patient is an addict who might be vulnerable and not in their right mind to truly consent.
Ultimately, however, aversion therapy is an accepted practice among today’s physicians. It’s a non-invasive behavior modification method that has shown good results in trials and through patient testimonials, and there are many ways to customize aversion therapy for people from all walks of life.
Having covered the basics of what this type of therapy actually is, let’s now move on to examples of it in use.
To Stop Nail Biting
Nail biting is a rather common, habitual behavior that affects many people of all ages. Some can stop the habit at the outset of the resolution to do so. On the other hand, many others can really struggle to stop the habit.
Aversion therapy here typically involves the introduction of some unpleasant element to the process. Some people apply a bitter or foul-tasting substance to the nail area so as to remind and deter the habitual offender. Others deliver a mildly painful punishment to themselves, such as a pinch or an ice cube, that serves as a negative counteraction to the nail biting.
There are even “behavior training devices” that can be worn on the body to deliver mild shocks whenever you find yourself gnawing on your nails. As with other aversion techniques, the idea is that the brain will come to associate nail biting with unpleasant stimuli and will try to avoid that stimuli in the future.
Another kind of aversion therapy for nail biting may involve placing tape over the nails or wrapping it around the fingertips. The inconvenience of unwrapping the nails for the purpose of biting then acts as the deterrent. Fittingly, this is called the “deterrent method,” which is sometimes distinguished as a special subset of aversion therapy.
Studies with aversion therapy for nail biting have shown great promise. Whether it’s applying unpleasant substances to the nails or covering them up to make them inaccessible, many nail biters have seen success with the aversion method.
To Stop Smoking
People have employed countless measures in the fight to break free of the addiction of nicotine and tobacco products. When many of these more common approaches fail, sufferers often revert to other endeavors. Therapeutic aversion is one feasible route.
Medically administered, shock therapy is actually the primary method of expert-overseen aversion techniques in smoking cessation. In shock therapy, the patient meets with the doctor on a set schedule to undergo this rather unpleasant routine. Whenever the patient is struck with the urge to smoke or begins the process of lighting up, a shock is administered by the overseeing doctor. With repeated application, the idea is that the brain becomes quite convinced that the hunt for nicotine leads directly to too much discomfort to be worth it.
There are also milder forms of aversion therapy for smokers. Some people might put a few dabs of an unpleasant substance over their cigarettes to make them taste bad, or they might only purchase types of cigarettes that they don’t like. Others might view off-putting images while they smoke, including images of charred lungs and other forms of smoke damage.
In a clinical setting, some people might have behavioral specialists blow warm, stale smoke into their faces whenever they take a puff. It’s also a common aversion technique to draw smoke into the mouth and hold it there for 30 seconds or more, often while the behaviorist is talking about and thereby reinforcing the negative health consequences of smoking.
Last but not least, some experts recommend a technique called “rapid smoking.” This is when a cigarette is smoked in quick puffs that don’t allow the smoker to enjoy it. In some cases, it might even cause nausea or respiratory distress. It can be especially useful for bored or social smokers who are used to lingering over their cigarettes.
In all cases of aversion therapy for smoking, the idea is that you need to take some kind of action that makes smoking more unpleasant than it is pleasurable. You have to counteract the “high” of the nicotine with a “down” of equal or greater strength. Whether that’s through shocks, foul tastes or rapidly smoked cigarettes is up to you.
To Curb Alcoholism
For as long as alcohol has been known to man, this same substance has been responsible for countless addictions and other health problems associated with its heavy use. Aversion techniques have thus been born from the need to treat these pitfalls of alcoholism.
One of the most interesting approaches for alcohol aversion therapy can be seen in the physician-overseen administration of specialty tryptophan metabolites. When taken regularly, these compounds prevent regular processing of alcohol within the body. As a result, drinking brings about a set of distinct digestive pains and troubles. Likewise, abstaining from drinking while on the medication promotes a great sense of well-being and euphoria.
Other methods of aversion therapy for drinking include shocks, distractions, painful counteractions and sabotaging one’s drinks with unpleasant tastes and textures. Some of these techniques you’ve seen before with things like smoking and nail biting, but they’ve been shown to be effective across multiple bad habits. They can also be combined with more traditional methods of therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for a broader range of behavior modification.
Because of the serious nature of alcohol abuse, many people seek aversion therapy through clinics and rehabs where they can be carefully monitored as they try to kick the habit. In the case of aversive medications, a prescription is required, and taking it under the supervision of a professional is often a requirement to both ensure the health of the patient and to prevent the addiction from shifting to another source.
It’s less common to see people self-administrating aversion therapy for drinking. It’s risky, and it can be less effective than therapy guided by an addiction specialist. It can also be difficult when the addiction is too severe for the patient to self-regulate their own recovery efforts.
To Resolve Weight or Diet Issues
The drive to eat can be the greatest of all human desires and drives. When we have a drive to eat all the wrong things, our bodies and our greater health thus suffer many bad consequences. Science has consequently developed all kinds of dietary and food aversion techniques and products.
There are many medications that can be taken to avert the consumption of unhealthy foods. Some are garden variety diet pills that suppress the appetite and stimulate the body into action with small doses of caffeine. Others are more specialized, and they might involve treating anxiety, depression or compulsive disorders in order to help you control your urges and avoid mental states where eating is a comfort. Depending on the type of medication that you’re considering, you might need a prescription from a doctor to obtain it.
Outside of medication, any number of personal aversion techniques can be employed so as to avoid prior binging or overeating habits. You can shock yourself with a wristband. You can cover a desired food with an undesired topping, or you can only buy snacks that you don’t like that much. One of the most effective aversion techniques involves leaving junk food at the store so that when the urge comes, an inconvenient trip out is always required in order to satisfy the craving. This is an example of the deterrent method.
Other deterrents can be psychological rather than physical. For example, a common tactic employed by weight loss clinics is to show nauseating images while someone is eating unhealthy foods. Some clinics even bring in hypnotists to put patients in a trance and associate words like “sugar” and “carbs” with other, more unpleasant words.
Aversion therapy for weight loss is another area that should be tread carefully. It’s very easy to develop disordered eating habits even with the best of intentions, so if you’re considering this form of treatment for a diet or weight loss routine, make sure that you consult with trained professionals first.
To Stop Gambling Addiction
Gambling addiction occurs when someone becomes addicted to gambling in any of its various forms. While there are no medications that can be prescribed here, there are a number of techniques that can be applied in order to avert the desire.
One method involves paying a considerable fee to family or even a charity every time the individual seeks to gamble. This acts as both a psychological deterrent and a physical means of restricting the amount of money that one has available to gamble. A similar technique is punishing the act of gambling with some kind of self-imposed consequence such as writing a public apology letter.
Another, more serious approach is through familial shunning, or the family’s direct reaction to further gambling via refusal to associate as usual with the gambler. The time applied to this unpleasant, consequential action may vary from hours to days.
A recent anti-gambling technique that’s gaining attention is something called “imaginal desensitization.” With this method, the gambler is gradually desensitized to the rush of gambling through relaxation techniques and mindfulness exercises. It reconditions their brain not to light up at the sight of casinos and other associated gambling imagery. Aversion therapy is sometimes included with this technique as a counterbalance: Pleasant images will be played over non-gambling images while unpleasant ones will be played over casinos.
Additional forms of aversion therapy for gambling can involve shocks, noises, hypnosis and various strange and frightening stimuli. As with all forms of aversion therapy, the goal is to replace the highs of gambling with the lows of something far less nice. When the brain comes to associate the very notion of gambling with these distasteful things, the aversion therapy has succeeded, and the subject will avoid gambling on their own.
Sometimes it can be quite difficult to abstain form past behaviors and addictions. There are many professional techniques to help in this arena. However, for those that don’t get the desired results with more common methods, approaches in aversion therapy can often serve as just the right motivation to get the job done.