Using ACT to target internalized homophobia and self-stigma
Many of our clients struggle with shame and stigma. Despite its prevalence in the therapy room, there are few clinical interventions that specifically target self stigma, defined here as “negative thoughts and feelings (e.g., shame, negative self-evaluative thoughts, fear) that emerge from identification with a stigmatized group” (p. 48, Luoma, O’Hair, Kohlenberg, Hayes, & Fletcher, 2010). This is an issue that we at Portland Psychotherapy are exploring, both in our clinical work and in the research we are conducting. We currently have several research projects underway, looking at various aspects of stigma and shame, how they impact functioning, and ways to target stigma and shame inside and outside the therapy office.
For these reasons, I was very interested in a recent article in Cognitive and Behavioral Practice by Yadavaia & Hayestitled “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Self-Stigma Around Sexual Orientation: A Multiple Baseline Evaluation.” In the article, the authors report on the effectiveness of a brief (6-10 session) ACT intervention for self stigma in those who experience same sex attraction– sometimes referred to as internalized homophobia. While the ACT intervention in the study was individualized to each participant, similar to standard clinical practice, all 6 of the basic ACT processes were covered and expert ratings of treatment integrity were high.
The study found that participants evidenced positive changes on a variety of factors including self stigma/internalized homophobia, depression, anxiety, quality of life, perceived social support, and overall psychological flexibility. What I found to be most significant was that while participants reported a decrease in the believability of same-sex thoughts, the frequency of those thoughts did not change. This finding is consistent with previous studies using ACT to target other psychological difficulties (e.g. Bach & Hayes, 2002) and appears to support an ACT-consistent mechanism of change. In ACT, it is the workability of a thought in terms of valued action, rather than the form of the thought that is targeted. As such, we would expect, and this study did indeed find, that the frequency or even the form, of particular thoughts would not necessarily change significantly, but rather that change is found in the function that thought serves. It other words, after the intervention, participants continued to still have the same same-sex thoughts, but they were much less troubled by the thought.
Previous studies have supported the use ACT to target other forms of self-stigma, including those who struggle with substance use problems (Luoma, Kohlenberg, Hayes, Bunting, & Rye, 2008) and obesity (Lillis, Hayes, & Bunting, 2009). Although power was limited because of the small sample size (n=5), the pattern of findings in this study were consistent with previous findings and suggests that ACT may be an effective intervention for individuals who struggle with self-stigma related to sexual attraction and sexual orientation.