Stimulus Control in Addictions

In today's article, you'll learn about stimulus control in detail and also about the most common ways of putting it into practice during therapy.
Stimulus Control in Addictions

Last update: 26 December, 2019

Stimulus control in addictions is a fundamental technique for quitting a destructive habit. Stimulus control techniques seek to eliminate the kinds of stimuli that trigger addictive behavior. Although this article is more about addictions, just know that stimulus control is appropriate in the context of any destructive habit.

Behavioral techniques serve as a framework for this technique, self-control, in particular. They’re concrete actions aimed at eliminating, replacing, or modifying stimuli. Thus, they can lead you to the response you wish to eliminate.

As we mentioned above, the technique is quite simple. All you have to do is make secondary changes to avoid falling into this type of behavior.

But the fact that it’s simple doesn’t imply it’s easy to get results with it. Of course, if both the therapist and patient approach it with empathy and commitment, then results are pretty much guaranteed.


First of all, the therapist must be empathetic with the person in front of them. They must do so without losing touch with reality. This is because not all desirable stimuli will be appropriate. Thus, they’ll have to find other alternatives.

Also, the patient must be very motivated and convinced they want to change. According to the Prochaska and Di Clemente Model, if a person is in the pre-contemplative or contemplative stage, it’ll be difficult for them to carry out the stimulus control. The patient must make a decision and commit to following their therapist’s guidelines.

A man talking to a therapist.

Ways to carry out stimulus control

There are many ways to carry out stimulus control. These range from directly eliminating the stimulus that precipitates the response, to making physiological changes within your body. Be that as it may, the therapist knows their patient can do it. But, most importantly, the task must, in fact, be doable.

Thus, this last point will depend a lot on the case and on the person’s resources, such as social support, self-control, motivation, etc.

In this regard, it’s clear that it’s a better idea to work on the first links of the behavioral chain. Thus, if you’re emotionally dependent on a person and whether you call them or not depends entirely on your consumption of alcohol, you must work on your compulsion to drink rather than on the behavior that makes you avoid the call.

“Between stimulus and control, there’s a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

-Viktor E. Frankl-

How to carry out stimulus control

  • Remove background stimuli. This is a particularly good alternative when the addictive behavior is quite serious and a person lacks self-control. In a situation where they’re trying to quit smoking and they need to smoke a cigar whenever they drink coffee. In this case, the therapist must advise them to eliminate coffee altogether. This is because they have a lot more self-control in that aspect, so they would avoid smoking in that situation.
  • Decrease background stimuli. This form of control stimulation is better in cases of people who have some self-control. Thus, they can’t radically eliminate the background stimuli. For example, if they have a strong impulse to buy things every time they go out. If this is the case, it’s a lot more realistic to ask them to leave their credit cards at home and to carry less cash. In this case, it wouldn’t be realistic to tell them to cancel them or leave home without any cash.

More ways…

  • Delay the behavior. Another rather effective way to deal with addictive behavior is by making the commitment to delay it. There are times when people feel a strong impulse to go to the fridge and eat more. In this case, they must make it a point not to go at least in the next 20 minutes. At the same time, it’s important to do something else to distract themselves. If they fulfill this commitment, then chances are their cravings will be gone afterward.
  • Make changes at a physiological level. Finally, a good option to avoid falling into the addictive trap is to make changes in your own organism. There’s a case of stimulus control for severe cases of alcoholism. It’s a drug by the names of Disulfiram or Antabuse. Alcoholics take the drug and its action in their body is to suppress the enzyme responsible for metabolizing alcohol (aldehyde dehydrogenase). Thus, the person will react badly when exposed to alcohol; they may experience vomiting, tachycardia, and sweating, among other symptoms.

Aside from this extreme case of stimulation control, another example of using the changes that occur at the physiological level could be to go shopping after having lunch. That way, they wouldn’t be hungry so they wouldn’t gravitate toward hypercaloric types of food.

A woman looking at the window.

Conclusions on stimulus control in addictions

When carried out properly, stimulus control in addictions is very effective. But it’s difficult if it’s the only method you resort to. Thus, you must use it along with other techniques to maximize your success.

When it comes to addictions, cognitive techniques also prove useful. Their purpose is to change the patient’s mistaken beliefs about their attachment problems. Similarly, they can also work with other methods, such as relaxation techniques, to better cope with their withdrawal and achieve mindfulness.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Labrador, F.J (2008). Técnicas de modificación de conducta. Editorial Pirámide

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.