Academic journal article International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy

Psychological Acceptance: Experimental Analyses and Theoretical Interpretations

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy

Psychological Acceptance: Experimental Analyses and Theoretical Interpretations

Article excerpt

The concept of psychological acceptance has been at the forefront of religious practices and beliefs (e.g., Catholicism) for may years. In these contexts, it appears that one is required to adopt a strategy of acceptance in the face of physical or emotional suffering, about which one can do little else except wait for the pain to subside. Indeed, it makes intuitive sense that in the context of physical or psychological suffering, such a strategy may well have some value. Indeed, recent experimental research in the behavior and cognitive therapies appears to lend empirical support to this perspective. Specifically, a small but growing body of evidence indicates that in certain contexts the absence of psychological acceptance in favor of what has been termed experiential avoidance may correlate with a number of psychological problems. In the first part of the current paper we briefly review the experimental research that has been conducted in the area of acceptance and experiential avoidance, (for a recent review of the clinical outcome research on these issues, see Hayes, Masuda, Bissett, Luoma, & Guerrero, 2004). In the second part of the paper we attempt to provide a behavioral and functional interpretation of the concept of psychological acceptance4.

PART 1

Experiential Avoidance

Although experiential avoidance is not necessarily problematic, as a psychological strategy it does appear to underlie several forms of psychopathology, including depression and generalized anxiety disorder (Hayes & Gifford, 1997). The term experiential avoidance applies when an individual demonstrates unwillingness to contact particular private experiences, such as bodily sensations, emotions, thoughts, and memories, especially when these are evaluated negatively (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999). As a result of this unwillingness, the individual then attempts to alter the form or frequency of these events as well as the contexts that occasion them. Although some forms of avoidance (e.g., distraction or relaxation) may be beneficial, the same strategy may, on other occasions, be counterproductive and can even interfere with an individual's progress towards valued goals (Blackledge & Hayes, 2001). For example, an individual may have limited participation in intimate relationships in attempts to avoid feelings of vulnerability and thoughts of possible rejection (Forsyth, Parker, & Finlay, 2003). Indeed, some authors have suggested that the thoughts and feelings associated with an aversive event themselves become aversive, and this reduces further opportunities for attaining valued goals (Blackledge & Hayes, 2001). As a result, the individual who attempts to avoid these feelings, etc. will not only move further away from valued living, but will continue to feel hopeless and uneasy (Wenzlaff & Wegner, 2000).

On occasions on which experiential avoidance is counterproductive in the long run, one might question why individuals continue to engage in this type of psychological strategy. The most likely answer lies in the perceived decrease of the negatively evaluated experiences, thoughts, feelings, etc. (Hayes, Strosahl, Wilson, Bisset, Pistorello, Toarmino, et al., in press). In other words, if one engages in distraction, one could argue that, at least in the short term, direct contact with the aversive events is avoided, and thus the associated discomfort is reduced or eliminated. Paradoxically however, some authors have argued that experiential avoidance is correlated with increases in the frequency or intensity of the avoided thoughts and feelings (Blackledge & Hayes, 2001). That is, attempts to avoid, control, or distract oneself from unpleasant thoughts etc. may result in more, rather than less, of those unwanted thoughts. In the following section, we briefly review the experimental evidence that demonstrates the counterproductive effects of thought suppression, as a form of experiential avoidance. …

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