From early childhood and throughout our lives, human beings create and maintain any number of relationships. How we function in these relationships not only shape our nature and habits but also determine the trajectories we take in our personal and professional lives.
Maintaining healthy relationships is important for both physical and psychological health and if these relationships turn sour or bitter, adverse health outcomes are more likely to show up. In fact, if you have an underlying health condition then such negative relationships may even affect your recovery.
Why it's important to ACT
This is why you're likely to find that most health problems, from binge-eating disorders and obesity to depression and heart disease, are somehow linked to past trauma or incidents and relationships with one's own body, food, hygiene and even people. Changing regressive and negative behavioural patterns that worsen these conditions is vital.
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is an emerging form of treatment used by psychologists and psychiatrists to deal with these issues and promote healthy behavioural change.
A study published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2017 explains that ACT is a behaviour change method explicitly designed towards the development of greater psychological flexibility.
Instead of trying to control unwanted psychological experiences, ACT aims to help individuals change their relationship with these experiences by cultivating acceptance, observing events neutrally instead of becoming entangled in them (cognitive defusion) and finally committing to adopting behaviours that support a healthful quality of life.
ACT ultimately promotes psychological flexibility to adopt new healthy behaviours while establishing greater resilience to barriers and habits that are unhealthy.
Psychological flexibility and relationships
In recent years, ACT has been predominantly used to promote healthy behavioural changes that deal with dietary habits or with the tolerance of physical pain.
In what's possibly a first, a new study published in the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science suggests that ACT can be implemented to improve familial and romantic relationships and their physical and mental health effects.
This study, a meta-analysis conducted by psychologists at the University of Rochester, indicates that mindfulness and psychological flexibility is the key to long-lasting relationships. On the other hand, inattentiveness, rigidity, mindlessness and inflexibility in personal relationships can ruin them by building unhealthy dynamics.
The study combined the sample sets of 174 papers with 43,592 total subjects and evaluated how factors such as acceptance, mindfulness, cognitive defusion, flexibility, lack of present moment awareness and inflexibility came into play in interpersonal relationships.
The researchers found that within families, higher levels of psychologically flexible behaviours by parents were linked to the following:
Greater use of adaptive parenting strategies
Lower use of lax, harsh and negative parenting strategies
Lower parenting stress or burden
Greater corresponding family cohesion
Lower child distress or trauma
These psychologically flexible behaviours appear to have spelled better long-term mental health outcomes for the entire family unit. Similarly, the psychologists found that within romantic relationships, higher levels of psychologically-inflexible behaviours were linked to the following:
Lower relationship satisfaction for the individual and their partners
Lower sexual satisfaction
Lower emotional supportiveness
Higher negative conflict and physical aggression
Higher attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance
Combined together, these findings suggest that psychological flexibility as promoted by ACT has better outcomes in both family units and couples, while psychological inflexibility in interactions and behaviours lead to the dissolution of the family unit or couple commitments, long-term trauma and mental health issues.
The researchers suggest ACT training or therapy to instill psychologically flexible behaviours may help all individuals shape and maintain better long-term relationships and health.
For more information, read our article on Therapy.
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