What Is Aversion Therapy & Is It Effective?

Aversion therapy is a type of behavioral therapy designed to modify or reduce unwanted or dangerous behaviors that may be disrupting a person's life.

Humans are designed to move away from pain and toward pleasure. This activates the reward center in the brain. When it's activated by specific behavior, a person is likely to repeat that behavior, even if it isn't good for them. Aversion therapy is designed to stop the reward system in the brain and create a negative experience, such as a painful or uncomfortable stimulus, creating an aversion.

Learn more about the history, uses, benefits, and side effects of aversion therapy.

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Aversion Therapy Uses

Aversion therapy, which is also referred to as aversive conditioning or counterconditioning, was first used in the early 1920s. Today it is most commonly used as a treatment for addictive behaviors.

Some specific uses for aversion therapy include:

  • Alcohol abuse
  • Smoking (including vaping or e-cigarettes)
  • Substance abuse
  • Gambling
  • Aggression and anger behavioral issues
  • Sexual offenses and inappropriate behaviors
  • Overeating
  • Repetitive self-harm behaviors and aggression among individuals with intellectual disabilities
  • Nail-biting

Aversion Therapy: A Problematic History

Significant controversy exists around a type of aversion therapy known as conversion therapy. Prior to the early 1970s, homosexuality was defined as a mental illness, and conversion therapy was used as a treatment to alter an individual's sexual orientation. This was often done by introducing negative stimuli, including painful electric shocks. This practice led to lifetimes of debilitating post-traumatic stress, severe depression and anxiety, and even death for some people.

Currently, 20 states have banned the practice for minors. In addition, evidence-based research continually says that conversion therapy is harmful, with no credible evidence that it has any effectiveness in changing a person's sexual orientation.

Aversion Therapy Techniques

The different types of aversion therapy include:

  • Medication-based: Medications such as Antabuse (disulfiram) cause nausea and/or vomiting when a person drinks or sometimes even smells alcohol. This is also called emetic therapy.
  • Chemically-based: Chemicals, such as those found in nail polish, that either taste or smell offensive work to reduce nail-biting behaviors.
  • Electrical aversion therapy (EAT): This is one of the more controversial forms of aversion therapy. It introduces pain through electrical shocks, which crosses ethical guidelines and blurs the line between healing and torture. Shocks are administered in the arm, leg, or even the genitals.
  • Verbal and visual aversion therapy: Negative verbal suggestions are stated while the client imagines the behavior or thinks about the desired behavior.
  • Sensory: Uses an unpleasant or uncomfortable sensation such as touch, taste, or smell.

Benefits of Aversion Therapy

Aversion therapy is beneficial in reducing some types of unwanted behaviors and habits because our natural response, when subjected to an aversive experience, is to withdraw and avoid having that experience again.

When some type of negative association is created between behavior or habit (such as the sting of a snapping rubber band, electric shocks, or unpleasant tastes or odors), aversion therapy can help people develop some type of resistance or revulsion toward a habit or behavior because they don't want to repeat the negative experience.

Disadvantages

A criticism of aversion therapy is that it may not get to the root cause of the issue because it only addresses behaviors.

Effectiveness of Aversion Therapy

In one study, participants reported that they experienced a strong aversion to alcohol after only four aversion therapy treatments. The aversion continued post-treatment and by 12 months after the program, 69% of participants remained abstinent from alcohol.

Another study reports that for smoking cessation, while short-term positive results have been reported, aversion therapy for smoking has "largely been abandoned." They add that an aversion was not often created but instead an association, and over time people will cognitively overcome an association.

Additionally, aversion therapy has ultimately shown to be ineffective in the treatment of many lifestyle behaviors.

Aversion Therapy Techniques at Home

There are a few simple ways to conduct aversion therapy at home. These include:

  • Rubber band snapping: Putting a rubber band around the wrist, much like a bracelet, can be used to snap and create a sting when trying to cease or reduce a behavior.
  • Nail-biting: There are nail polishes specifically designed for stopping nail-biting. When applied by a person who wants to eliminate their nail-biting habit, the nail polish has a sour or bitter flavor when bitten or chewed. This begins to curb the urge or desire to bite one's nails. These can be found at drugstores and beauty supply stores.

Negative Side Effects of Aversion Therapy

Negative side effects of aversion therapy include:

  • Discomfort
  • Pain
  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • In severe cases, post-traumatic stress disorder

Researchers warn that aversion therapy must be used correctly, because shaming and punishment are associated with worse outcomes and may even increase compulsive behaviors.

What to Expect With Aversion Therapy

When considering aversion therapy, it's best to find a therapist trained and experienced in this form of therapy and for the specific habit or behavior. For example, with aversion therapy for addictions, it's best to seek the services of a mental health provider with expertise on addiction.

Typically a healthcare or mental health provider will gather a history and do an assessment at the first appointment. They may ask a number of questions about the habits and behaviors, how long they have occurred, and what change is necessary or needed.

In the case of aversion therapy for smoking, obesity, or even alcohol, it may be necessary to see a primary healthcare provider or psychiatrist to prescribe medication to create the aversion to these behaviors.

Summary

Aversion therapy is a form of behavioral therapy which creates an aversion or negative stimulus to an undesired behavior or habit. It is used most often in the case of addiction. The effectiveness of this type of therapy is inconclusive, and negative side effects, like shame, anxiety, and even PTSD, can occur.

A Word From Verywell 

If you are considering aversion therapy for an unwanted behavior or habit, it's important to find a licensed mental health professional who is trained to help you. It may also help to speak with your healthcare provider, as your medical history may determine whether this type of therapy is a fit for you. If aversion therapy is not the right fit, there are many other types of therapy that can help you live well.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long does it take for aversion therapy to work?

    In one study, it took at least four aversion therapy treatments in a chemical aversion treatment program to begin seeing results.

  • Why is aversion therapy controversial?

    Because aversion therapy involves introducing a negative stimulus to reduce a behavior, the use of pain and fear to do so has caused significant harm in the past, including severe distress and anxiety. Aversion therapy may also be more effective when combined with other therapies that can address other factors of the behaviors, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

  • What conditions are typically treated with aversion therapy?

    Addictions, including alcohol abuse and smoking, along with habit reduction, such as nail-biting and overeating, are some of the more typical conditions treated by aversion therapy.

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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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