What Makes Aversion Therapy Effective for Veterans?

veteran woman looking off into distance

Around a quarter of soldiers on active duty show signs of a mental health problem, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, traumatic brain injury and even substance abuse. Aversion therapy is based on classical conditioning and is a well-known form of therapy that can help with addictions and other issues faced by veterans.

What Is Aversion Therapy?

Aversion therapy is based on classical conditioning, which you may know about because of Pavlov’s famous dog experiment. Based on initial observations, Pavlov started to ring a bell whenever a group of dogs ate. After a while, he found he could produce the response associated with food (salivation) by simply ringing the bell. The dogs had begun to associate the bell with food so strongly that they responded the same way to both stimuli.

In a similar way, associations like this can be produced to create a negative response to a stimulus. Some other well-known examples are certain products you can apply to your nails that taste disgusting. This means if you bite your nails, it’s immediately followed by a negative consequence, discouraging you from doing it again. Aversion therapy works on this basis.

What Is Aversion Therapy Used For?

Aversion therapy is used for several conditions, including:

  • Drug or alcohol abuse/addiction
  • Compulsive nail biting
  • Smoking
  • Gambling
  • Weight loss
  • Violent behavior
  • Anger issues
  • Deviant sexual behavior (e.g. pedophilia)

Historically, it was also used to “treat” homosexuality; however, this practice is now widely recognized as highly unethical and likely harmful.

Why Is Aversion Therapy Effective for Veterans?

PTSD, depression, alcoholism and prescription drug abuse are particularly common issues with veterans and about 13% of veterans are either drinking or using drugs.

Aversion therapy can be an effective treatment for certain addictions. Many studies on aversion therapy were conducted on veterans treated by the Veterans Administration (summarized in a paper by R. L. Elkins) and the treatment showed to be effective for addicted veterans. For example, one study randomized 20 alcoholic veterans to receive aversion therapy or standard treatment. Those that received a vomit-inducing drug (i.e. disulfiram) in the aversion therapy group were more likely to be abstinent by six months. Although this can vary depending on the individual, the therapy appears to be effective in veterans in a similar fashion as within other groups.

Limitations of Aversion Therapy and Finding Help

Although aversion therapy can be very useful for veterans struggling with addiction, it’s important to note that the treatment doesn’t address any of the psychological issues that fuel the addiction. Without addressing these elements, the individual will be at risk of getting addicted to something else in future, even if one addiction is overcome. If you’re looking for aversion therapy for your loved one or yourself, it is vital to also attend conventional counseling and address the psychological root causes of the problem. Only then can you truly overcome your addiction.



“An appraisal of chemical aversion (emetic therapy) approaches to alcoholism treatment” – NCBI PubMed.gov

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