How is Aversion Therapy Used?

Aversion therapy is a form of classical conditioning aimed at decreasing or eliminating undesirable behaviors. Just as certain behaviors can be learned, they can also be unlearned by introducing a set of unpleasant stimuli matched with those behaviors preventing the individual from practicing the habits. Studies show that under the right circumstances, the deterrent behaviors can be reversed when associated with unpleasant sensations. The goal of aversion therapy is to eliminate destructive behavioral patterns, such as alcohol intake, smoking, drug addiction or sexual deviations.

The Treatment

The treatment process begins with an initial visit to a therapist who will measure the severity, the frequency and the environment where the undesirable behaviors occur. Based on the type and severity of the problem, a treatment protocol is designed to meet the patient’s needs.

In many cases, the therapy includes mild electric shocks delivered to the forearm or leg. This approach should not be confused with electroconvulsive therapy that is delivered to the brain, typically for treatment of depression. This type of aversive stimuli is uncomfortable but mild and much more effective than any pharmacological or chemical treatment. It also alleviates the possibility of exposing the patient to substituting one drug addiction for another. Gentle electric shocks are simple in their delivery, and the intensity can be pre-selected by a patient or a therapist to a tolerable level. The equipment is portable, safe to use and suitable for outpatients. After the initial treatment, the patient may be instructed to self-administer the shock in a home setting with periodic monitoring at the medical facility.

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Inpatient Treatment

In severe cases, the patient may be admitted to a hospital or a treatment facility. The patient is informed ahead of time what to expect and is required to sign a consent form. As this type of treatment is considered extreme, the patients must be fully aware before entering the entire course of therapy. Inpatient therapy begins with an emetic drug administered intravenously while the patient is monitored by the attending physician and support staff. In case of alcoholism, the patient is asked to taste the alcohol without swallowing. The body reacts by producing severe nausea and violent episodes of vomiting. The process is repeated several times over a period of 30-60 minutes.

Inpatient therapy is then combined with group sessions and individual counseling coupled with social skills training, stress management, health education and post-therapy maintenance. Hospitalization typically lasts 10 days and is a part of a comprehensive treatment plan to be continued after the patient’s dismissal from the facility.

The Results

Typical results result in the patient’s understanding the rigorous demands of the treatment and willingness to maintain their sobriety. Abnormal results may lead to aggression and negativity, which could cause relapses. When increased hostility is noted, this type of therapy may be replaced with other, less-invasive methods of healing.

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Many patients enter this type of treatment willingly when they are ready to change their lives for the better. The treating medical personnel understand the importance of establishing a positive relationship with the patient based on trust and knowledge of the process. Aversion therapy is most effective when the individual has the support of friends and family during and after the treatment to help them maintain the positive outcome.