Experiential Avoidance, PTSD, and ACT in Children & Young Adults

By: Dr. David H. Baron, MD, Senior Staff Psychiatrist at Yellowbrick

Recent research published in Development and Psychopathology suggests that children who are neglected, or physically or sexually abused, and cope with the experience by avoiding painful thoughts, are significantly more likely to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).1

In the study of 51 girls who had experienced these kinds of mistreatment, those who were able and willing to talk about their painful experiences and feelings were less likely to develop PTSD symptoms one year later.  The girls who avoided these thoughts were more likely a year later to have symptoms of PTSD.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a treatment technique which includes mindfulness meditation and other mindfulness-promoting techniques, identifying the values one finds most important, and taking committed action to pursue value-based action despite the inevitable pain with which everyone is faced in life.

Those who have been traumatized and are at risk for developing PTSD (with some studies indicating as many as 40% of those who are abused are at risk for this complication) often experience painful thoughts,  emotions, and urges to avoid experiences that are reminders of these.  Finding ways to manage these painful experiences holds the potential to reduce the risk of later symptoms.  Since the symptoms of PTSD can be highly disabling, this can make a crucial difference in the quality of a trauma survivor’s life.

ACT offers a variety of techniques to help trauma survivors differentiate between the inevitable pain of having lived through abuse or neglect, and the suffering that comes with strenuous efforts to suppress, eliminate, or avoid that pain.  By redirecting her efforts toward pursuing valued action, a survivor of trauma can lead a more fulfilling and less limited life.  Since the skills learned as part of ACT are directly aimed at reducing experiential avoidance, ACT also may reduce the risk of developing PTSD.

Yellowbrick, as part of its Life Strategies Program, offers a weekly ACT group.  In this group, participants practice mindfulness and related meditation techniques—which allow one to observe and accept their pain without becoming fused with it—identify their values, and practice and plan what committed actions they can take to further these values.  Those who apply these techniques are able to lead a more valued, vitalized and fulfilling life regardless of their painful experiences.

  1. Tumolo, Jolyunn. (2014)  PTSD Risk Higher in Maltreated Children Who Avoid Painful Thoughts.  Psych Congress Network 
  1. Shenk CE, Putnam FW, Rausch JR, Peugh JL, Noll JG. A longitudinal study of several potential mediators of the relationship between child maltreatment and posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms. Development and Psychopathology. 2014; 26(1):81-91.
  1. McVerry J. Experiential avoidance increases PTSD risk following child maltreatment [press release]. Penn State University: University Park, PA; March 5, 2014.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *