Psychological therapies

Many different psychological therapies are available to treat addiction

Psychological therapies for addiction include a range of talking-based treatments, based on the idea that maladaptive behaviour patterns play a key role in maintaining an addiction – but can be altered.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), based on cognitive theories of addiction, works with the addict to help them identify likely ‘problem situations’ in their recovery – such as exposure to the substance or activity they are addicted to, or cravings – and develop coping strategies for when they encounter them.

Other therapies, based on behavioural theories, believe that addiction is a learned behaviour, which can be ‘re-learned’ through positive or negative reinforcement.

Historically, addiction has been treated with aversion therapy. This acts on the idea that negative reinforcement can be used to control addictions, through associating the substance or behaviour with a negative experience, usually an electric shock. The long-term success, however, is questionable, and the treatment is generally considered unethical.

Motivation therapies share a similar idea, but aim to help the addict recover by generating internal motivation from the addict and promoting incentives for prolonged abstinence. These therapies are favoured over aversion therapy, partly because the addict can continue the therapy when not in the company of the therapist.

Different behavioural approaches produce similar results overall, but they vary a good deal between patients. Believing in the treatment, and in the person giving it, is a vital ingredient. Otherwise, results may be little better than for addicts who decide to manage their own withdrawal. Psychological treatments are often used in combination with pharmacological treatments, so that the physical withdrawal symptoms can be reduced as the individual undergoes therapy to tackle the causes.

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Addiction’ in June 2010 and reviewed and updated in September 2015.

Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development