Aversion therapy is the process of using unpleasant stimuli to eliminate undesirable habits or self-destructive behaviors. It is based on the psychological theory of behavioral learning that states most behaviors are learned and therefore, can be changed. Aversion therapy can be used for nearly any habit or behavior, but tends to be implemented most often for treating substance addiction and rehabilitating sex offenders.
Many types of therapy tend to be relationship-centered. Therapists may have personal sessions with clients and offer advice and suggestions on how to improve coping or decision making skills. Aversion therapy differs because it is typically only behavior-centered. Therapists work with clients to solely change their physical reactions to destructive behaviors or addictions.
Aversion is the feeling of extreme dislike or hate. The central belief of the therapy is that a therapist can guide a client into feeling aversion toward something they are addicted to. A negative stimulus is combined with the undesired habit, known as the target stimulus.
There are three main negative stimuli that can be implemented, although aversion therapists may develop customized plans for individual clients. Chemical stimuli is the use of medication with unpleasant side effects, such as nausea. Olfactory stimuli is the exposure to a bad smell, such as ammonia. The most common stimuli are electric shocks that are given through a device attached to the arm or leg.
Aversion therapy begins with a medical exam to determine which methods are safe for a client to be exposed to. Cljients with heart problems are not recommended to be electrically shocked. Prior to the therapy, a client signs a document of informed consent stating he or she is aware of the procedure and agrees to it.
During a therapy session, the client is exposed to his or her target stimulus. The exposure can be visual by using photographs or physical objects. It can also be verbal, in which the client describes a fantasy about the target stimulus. As the client is exposed to the target stimulus, the therapist introduces the negative stimulus. The process is repeated over an indefinite period in the hopes that the client’s brain will eventually associate the negative stimulus with the target stimulus, thus making it lose its pleasure.
Critics of aversion therapy argue that it is dangerous and unethical. They feel the therapy can be misused and turn into cruelty. Other critics claim the process is simply ineffective and may contribute to hostile client behavior.