The Benefits and Risks of Shock Therapy

· May 3, 2018

The label “shock therapy” encompasses therapies that are actually quite different from each other. What they have in common, as the name implies, is that they have a significant impact. We are talking about a stimulus that is capable of producing changes in a person’s brain. 

As far as we know, the ancient Greeks were the first ones to experiment with shock therapy. We know that they used something like this on people who were in a highly agitated state. There are references to this type of anxiety being treated with suffocation. This is the first we see of this questionable idea that one strong emotional experience is capable of erasing a prior, problematic one.

“Fear sharpens the senses while anxiety paralyzes them”

-Kurk Goldstein-

Shock therapy itself comes from the field of psychiatryFirst, psychiatrists instituted insulin shock therapy and cardiazol shock therapy. Apparently, an overdose of these chemical substances improved the symptoms of mental patients. Later, they introduced electric shocks. This type of treatment is highly controversial, but psychiatrists still use it even today.


Over time, experts added different techniques to the category of shock therapyThey range from walking on hot coals to publicly announcing individual failures. In all cases, the principle is the same. That is, to expose the patient to an intense emotional experience with the goal of provoking behavioral changes.

A short history of shock therapy

It isn’t easy to evaluate the pertinence and effectiveness of shock therapy. It’s clear that exposing a person to a borderline traumatic event will make them change in some way. The question is, does the change actually solve the problem that it seeks to correct? If the answer is yes, will the change last?

There are many controversial aspects of shock therapy. Therapists started to use it to formally treat mental illness in the sixteenth century. However, the data to support its effectiveness isn’t reliable. That’s because those who practiced it didn’t organize the information or treat it in a scientific way.

Later on, Ugo Cerletti, an Italian neurologist, made a curious observation. He discovered that if you used electricity on pigs before they went to slaughter, they were calmer. That gave him the idea to try something similar on humans.

Benefits and risks of shock therapy

Classic shock therapy still exists, and still causes controversy. In many cases, shock therapy causes brain damage. With that damage, some states of psychotic anxiety disappear. Nevertheless, in most cases (if not in all) the price is much too high.

We have documented cases of shock therapy causing permanent injury or cardiac arrest. In other words, it can lead to death. There are also cases of people who end up in a vegetative state after these procedures.

Psychiatrists continue using electroshock therapy. They use it primarily in cases of severe depression. There are a good number of people in the world who claim to have benefited from these procedures. It’s possible that they are right. It’s also possible that the patient views the treatment as a severe punishment. Consequently, they refrain from certain behaviors that the doctor doesn’t want them to show. In any case, the controversy is there.

risks of shock therapy

Shock therapy and psychology

Now, there are some shock therapies that are more benign. Psychologists primarily use them to treat phobias. The method involves directly exposing the patients to their own fears. Psychologists pressure them to do this, but they also accompany them during the experience.

When psychologists use this type of therapy, their patients report experiencing true agony.  Before their therapist exposes them to their fears, they are terrified. However, when they face their fears and don’t run away, the opposite happens. They feel sure of themselves, confident. With shock therapy, in general, the exposure only has to happen once. One time is enough for the phobia to disappear. However, psychologists also sometimes use progressive exposure. It all depends on the situation. 

As with anything human, there is no final word on the subject. In psychology, we don’t consider anything an absolute truth. Each person is unique. What works for one person, could be disastrous for another. Mental health professionals must do thorough evaluations of every patient they treat. Only then should they prescribe shock therapy, or any other therapy.