Flashbacks, nightmares, feelings of helplessness, and intrusive, upsetting memories -- the typical symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder -- are not uncommon in those who have been sexually assaulted or faced violence or abuse from their spouses or romantic partners. For some, being a victim becomes central to their identity, with the sexual assault or other violence defining how they see themselves.
Two UNT psychologists will determine if Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is effective in treating PTSD symptoms in clients of Denton County Friends of the Family, which provides free outreach services to those who have been affected by relationship violence, sexual assault or both.
Amy Murrell and Adriel Boals, both assistant professors of psychology, will recruit 80 participants for the study, which is being funded by a $15,000 grant from the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health. The study participants will attend four sessions in small groups to learn Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT, skills.
ACT teaches individuals to notice feelings and thoughts resulting from a traumatic event, but instead of learning how to better control those feelings and thoughts, the individuals learn to accept them and focus on their personal values and goals, treating the traumatic event as one of many events in their lives. They also learn to embrace their "self-as-context" -- the "you" that observes and experiences events, yet is always distinct from thoughts, feelings and memories.
Murrell, who has studied ACT since she was a doctoral psychology student at the University of Mississippi in the late 1990s, says people can be taught to put distance between themselves and their feelings -- the "acceptance" -- and take action -- the "commitment."
"If a client says ‘I'm depressed' and fuses that feeling with actions, he or she may decide to not get out of bed in the morning. But if the feelings are defused from the behavior, the person may say, ‘I'm depressed, but I'll get out of bed anyway because I want to act in accordance with my values,'" says Murrell, whose doctoral professor, Kelly Wilson, was one of the first developers of ACT.
Murrell was one of the first psychologists to use ACT in children who have witnessed domestic violence. More recently, she was the co-author of The Joy of Parenting: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Guide to Effective Parenting in the Early Years, which is written for parents of children ages 2 to 8. When parents become susceptible to knee-jerk reactions, anger and fears about parenting, they can use ACT to keep their core values about raising children and long-term parenting goals in mind, reminding themselves that they don't have to be perfect parents and give themselves credit for what they are doing right, Murrell says.
Boals, who has researched voluntary and involuntary memories of people with PTSD, says he believes ACT can go above and beyond conventional therapy for the disorder.
"We are potentially giving those in the study a skill that they can use throughout life. In the military, this is called resilience training, which can potentially be taught before deployment," he says.
After results from the research are published next year, the professors plan to seek National Institutes of Health funding for a larger study.
Nancy Kolsti with UNT News Service can be reached at Nancy.Kolsti@unt.edu.