Aversion Therapy Uses and Effectiveness

Aversion therapy
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Aversion therapy is a type of behavioral therapy that involves repeat pairing an unwanted behavior with discomfort. For example, a person undergoing aversion therapy to stop smoking might receive an electrical shock every time they view an image of a cigarette. The goal of the conditioning process is to make the individual associate the stimulus with unpleasant or uncomfortable sensations.

During aversion therapy, the client may be asked to think of or engage in the behavior they enjoy while at the same time being exposed to something unpleasant such as a bad taste, a foul smell, or even mild electric shocks. Once the unpleasant feelings become associated with the behavior, the hope is that unwanted behaviors or actions will begin to decrease in frequency or stop entirely.


Aversion therapy can be used to treat a number of problematic behaviors including the following:

  • Bad habits
  • Addictions
  • Alcoholism
  • Smoking
  • Gambling
  • Violence or anger issues

Aversion therapy is most commonly used to treat drug and alcohol addictions. A subtle form of this technique is often used as a self-help strategy for minor behavior issues.

In such cases, people may wear an elastic band around the wrist. Whenever the unwanted behavior or urge to engage in the behavior presents itself, the individual will snap the elastic to create a slightly painful deterrent.


The overall effectiveness of aversion therapy depends upon a number of factors including:

  • The treatment methods and aversive conditions that are used.
  • Whether or not the client continues to practice relapse prevention after treatment is concluded.
  • In some instances, the client may return to previous patterns of behavior once they are out of treatment and no longer exposed to the deterrent.

Generally, aversion therapy tends to be successful while it is still under the direction of a therapist, but relapse rates are high.

Once the individual is out in the real world and exposed to the stimulus without the presence of the aversive sensation, it is highly likely that they will return to the previous behavior patterns.

Problems With Aversion Therapy

One of the major criticisms of aversion therapy is that it lacks rigorous scientific evidence demonstrating its effectiveness. Ethical issues over the use of punishments in therapy are also a major point of concern.

Practitioners have found that in some cases, aversion therapy can increase the anxiety that actually interferes with the treatment process. In other instances, some patients have also experienced anger and hostility during therapy.

In some instances, serious injuries and even fatalities have occurred during the course of aversion therapy. Historically, when homosexuality was considered a mental illness, gay individuals were subjected to forms of aversion therapy to try to alter their sexual preferences and behaviors. Depression, anxiety, and suicide have been linked to some cases of aversion therapy.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

The use of aversion therapy to "treat" homosexuality was declared dangerous by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1994. In 2006, ethical codes were established by both the APA and the American Psychiatric Association. Today, using aversion therapy in an attempt to alter homosexual behavior is considered a violation of professional conduct.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind 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.
  1. Aversion conditioning. American Psychological Association: APA Dictionary of Psychology.

  2. ScienceDirect. Aversion Therapy.

  3. Elkins RL, Richards TL, Nielsen R, Repass R, Stahlbrandt H, Hoffman HG. The Neurobiological Mechanism of Chemical Aversion (Emetic) Therapy for Alcohol Use Disorder: An fMRI Study. Front Behav Neurosci. 2017;11:182. doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2017.00182

  4. Harris S. Aversion Therapy for HomosexualityJAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association. 1988;259(22):3271. doi:10.1001/jama.1988.03720220019012

  5. Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. American Psychological Association.

  6. Practice Guidelines. American Psychiatric Association.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."