Modern Aversion Therapy: Antabuse Medication
Aversion therapy has been used as a psychological treatment method for stopping compulsive behaviors since 1932. Aversion therapy also referred to as conversion or reparative therapy is the method of exposing a patient to the object of their obsession at the same time as an uncomfortable and painful stimulus. The purpose is to utilize the principle of conditioning to cause the patient to associate their addiction or compulsive behavior with an unpleasant sensation. The belief underlying the method is that it will cause the patient to abandon the targeted behavior because they will have been conditioned to associate it with pain, discomfort, or stress.
This method has been used to treat a variety of conditions, but it is extremely controversial. This is because common methods of aversion therapy, like administering electric shocks to patients, are viewed as inhumane, and this form of treatment has often been used to “treat” homosexuality, which is not a medical or psychological disorder. In these cases, this method is not therapeutic but is rather extremely damaging both physically and psychologically to the patient. Electrical aversion therapy has fallen out of favor with most medical professionals, but chemical aversion therapy in the form of Antabuse medication for alcoholism is still widely used today.
What is Antabuse Medication?
Antabuse medication is a chemical form of aversion therapy designed to produce uncomfortable effects when a patient who takes the medication consumes alcohol. Antabuse medication, or disulfiram, is a prescription drug used in some recovery programs to treat alcoholism. It works by blocking the enzyme that metabolizes alcohol in the body. When a patient who regularly takes disulfiram consumes alcohol, they experience unpleasant side effects similar to an allergic reaction. The combination of Antabuse medication and alcohol causes:
- Flushing (heat, tingling, redness in the skin)
- Swelling in the body
- Severe nausea and vomiting
- Headache and blurred vision
- Neck pain
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath, difficulty taking full breaths
- Increased heart rate
- Loss of balance, dizziness
With increased amounts of alcohol, these symptoms can become worse and even lead to a fatal interaction. The more severe symptoms of drinking while taking Antabuse medication include:
- Severe chest pain
- Seizures or fainting
- Slowed or stopped breathing
- Liver problems
For this reason, Antabuse medication is commonly used in many programs but is still a controversial method of aversion therapy for alcoholism
Does Aversion Therapy Work for Alcoholics?
Aversion therapy has been proven successful in some cases of treating habitual behaviors. For example, a treatment center in Seattle called Shick-Shadel uses aversion therapy to help patients quit smoking. According to an article published in Psychology Today, over 50 percent of the patients enrolled in this program had remained smoke-free a year after completing treatment.
There are some people who argue that aversion therapy in the form of Antabuse medication is effective in treating alcoholism. When combined with therapy, professional care, and relapse prevention, Antabuse medication can help deter some people from consuming alcohol. Proponents of the drug cite the following benefits of Antabuse medication:
- It provides motivation to stay sober to avoid uncomfortable side effects
- It has been proven to be an effective deterrent in most of the people who take it as a part of their recovery program
- The small amount of alcohol that it takes to produce an unwanted reaction means that people who do attempt to drink on Antabuse medication often stop after consuming very little alcohol, minimizing the negative effects of a relapse
Despite the fact that Antabuse medication can sometimes help individuals remain motivated to stay sober, it also comes with its fair share of downsides, which many argue make this drug a poor choice for treating alcoholism. The cons of using Antabuse medication as an aversion therapy to treat alcoholism include:
- People can still drink on the medication, and when they do it can be extremely dangerous
- Antabuse does not alleviate cravings, so someone in early recovery will still have to contend with the mental and psychological struggle of craving alcohol
- A patient can simply stop taking the medication and be able to drink without side effects
- It does not address the underlying causes of alcoholism
- It can interact with products like mouthwash and perfume, causing uncomfortable reactions when patients use normal household products
Balancing the Pros and Cons
For some people in very tailored, individualized treatment programs that involve the care of a doctor and medical staff, Antabuse medication may be a useful extra layer of accountability for patients. However, as we know from the nature of alcoholism, consequences (even severe ones) do not alleviate the obsessive use of substances. On its own, Antabuse does not treat the many factors that contribute to alcoholism.
For most patients, aversion therapy for alcoholism is likely ineffective unless it is combined with comprehensive treatment involving therapy, and it can be extremely dangerous for patients who don’t comply with abstinence. Ultimately, if negative consequences were sufficient to make individuals dependent on alcohol stop drinking, then alcoholism would likely cease to exist. Alcoholism involves compulsive drinking despite shattering, tragic consequences. For some patients, aversion therapy may help them quit, but for most, long-term sobriety and recovery depend upon a comprehensive treatment that addresses the physical, environmental, psychological, and emotional causes of addiction and alcoholism. If you need evidence-based treatment that’s a break from the status quo, contact Wellness Retreat Recovery today at 888-821-0238.