2.2.6 Affect Regulation: A Therapeutic Method
The literature search revealed a handful of studies exploring affect regulation in the context of the psychotherapy process and outcomes. In particular these demonstrated links between the clients’ affect regulation deficits and measures of the therapeutic alliance (Nightingale, 2002; Safran & Muran, 2002) and the quality of their in-session processing and the measured outcomes in short-term therapy (Watson, McCullen, Prosse & Bedard, 2011). Interestingly, an earlier study based on emotion-focused therapy found clients’ increased depth of capacity for emotional experiencing to more robustly predict therapy outcome than factors of the therapeutic alliance. What is significant about these findings is that the clients’ competence with affect regulation is also shown to predict outcomes at the end of therapy independent of the working alliance (Goldman, Greenberg & Pos, 2005). This invites us to speculate that affect regulation is perhaps an integral part of the therapeutic alliance, as well as a discrete, central factor in psychotherapy and worthy of exploration in its own right.
Affect Dysregulation. The literature differentiates between affect dysregulation and negative affect. Affect regulation describes an individual’s implicit and explicit strategies to maximize
positive affect and minimize negative mood (Westen, 1994). This involves mechanisms that identify the significance of emotional stimuli and produce an affective experience in response, as well as the ability to regulate the affective state (Phillips, Drevets & Rauch, 2003a, 2003b). The literature seems to organize affect dysregulation on a continuum ranging from an over-regulated, hypo-aroused style like alexithymia (Taylor, Bagby & Parker, 1997) to an under-regulated, over-activated, hyper-aroused regulatory style. Dysregulation and disorganized affective responses do not necessarily describe an absence of affective experience. On the contrary, they describe an unpredictability involving an excessive or diminished affective responsiveness (Sarkar & Adshead, 2006). Central characteristics involve the individual’s inability to soothe themselves and return to a baseline of affective experiencing (van der Kolk & Fisler, 1994) as well as a capacity to stimulate a feeling of aliveness. Both adapted styles often lead the individual to seek an external regulation in the form of excessive risk-taking, self-harm, eating disorders, substance abuse and sex, and are often expressed as a personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder diagnoses.
Negative Affect on the other hand is considered to be a discrete construct (Conklin, Bradley &
Westen, 2007), which describes an individual’s experience of anxious, dysphoric, angry and shame-based affective states (Watson & Clarke, 1992). While distinguishing between negative affective experience as a trait and extreme experiences of dysregulation as a state is reportedly difficult, it is an important distinction to consider. While there are calls for a
clearer definition this remains conceptually unclear (Kassel, 2007). Certainly the research demonstrates mechanisms of dissociation to exist in response to negative emotions in psychotherapy, which suggests that this reduces the efficacy of treatment (Spitzer, Wilert, Grabe, Rizos & Freyberger, 2007). An individual’s attempt to ‘avoid, minimize or convert’ intolerable negative affect is thought to express the ‘bottom-line defense’ of dissociation (Fosha, 2009:p.127; Bromberg, 1998), which interrupts the ‘emotional-motivational aspects of the change process in psychotherapy’ (Schore, 2007). This is highlighted particularly in work with ‘early forming and more severe pathologies’ (Fosha, 2009:p.127). While Berking
et al. (2008) demonstrated the importance of implementing emotion regulation skills ‘as a
treatment target in [cognitive behavioural] psychotherapeutic interventions’ (p.1230) they also speculated that there might be automatic processes involved in managing negative affect. They conclude that more implicit levels of emotional processing exist, giving rise to speculation that cognitive behavioural interventions may be inadequate and that interventions addressing implicit and unconscious, intra-psychic regulating mechanisms are perhaps necessary (BCPSG, 2010; Schore, 2002, 2003).
While the research investigating the links between affect and sex addiction is scant there are a handful of studies that have explored the relationship between hypersexuality, negative affect, stress and affect dysregulation. The majority of them used a quantitative methodology and a homogenous male sample to investigate a range of areas including problems of self-concept amongst hypersexual men with attention deficit disorder (Reid, Carpenter, Gillian, 2011a), emotions in hypersexual men (Reid, 2010a), executive function and hypersexual behaviours (Reid, Karim, McRory & Carpenter, 2010b) and shame and neuroticism in hypersexuality (Reid, Harper & Anderson, 2009a). A further three studies, however, used a mixed gender sample to explore the relationship between psychopathology, personality and hypersexuality using the MMPI-2 (Reid & Carpenter, 2009b), alexithymia, emotional stability and vulnerability to stress (Reid, Carpenter, Spackman & Willes, 2008), and one in particular compared personality factors between hypersexual women and men (Reid, Dhuffar, Parhami & Fong, 2012). These studies evidence hypersexuality as an expression of affect dysregulation, negative affect and stress vulnerability and empirically support the hypothesis that hypersexual men and hypersexual women are more likely to experience deficits in affect regulation and negative affect than a non-addicted group.
Temperament and Affect Dysregulation.
Factors of temperament have been empirically linked to an individual’s vulnerability to sexually addictive and compulsive behaviours (Cloninger, Bayon & Svakic, 1998) and personality traits associated with negative affect, mood states and hypo-regulation such as
alexithymia, shame and loneliness have been observed in correlation studies of hypersexual clients (Reid, Carpenter, Spackman & Willies, 2008). In a study exploring their emotional coping strategies, measures of overall distress including depression, anxiety, difficulties managing thoughts and social alienation were reported to be elevated in a group of hypersexual men compared to the non-hypersexual group. While results reflect a struggle with affect regulation, this group also reported a tendency toward feelings of demoralization and generalized vulnerability to emotional distress with over 40% of the hypersexual group indicating experiences of insecurity, low self-worth, lack of self-confidence, social alienation, guilt, and sadness (Reid, Harper and Anderson 2009a:p.304). The following year Reid (2010a) extended these findings to investigate which emotional experiences were predominant amongst hypersexual males. He found greater levels of shame, which perpetuated self-directed hostility, than guilt, and also identified experiences of fear, disgust, anger and shyness. In addition men exhibited impoverished positive emotions in a lack of joy and happiness. Reid (2010a) concluded that hypersexual males had higher measures of
clusters of negative rather than positive affects and that these ‘constellations of negative
emotions require attention, particular clarity in psychotherapy’ (Reid, 2010a:p.213).
Women, Stress Vulnerability and Sex Addiction.
While Reid’s studies have certainly shown modest but significant results supporting the hypothesis that individuals who manifest symptoms of hypersexual behaviour are more likely to experience deficits in affect regulation and have greater levels of negative affect including alexithymia and depression, and that severity of hypersexuality is linked proportionately to levels of emotional instability and stress vulnerability, the studies up to this point did not account for any gender difference. Becker and colleagues (2007) hypothesize that women are more vulnerable than males to developing disease, mood disorders and addictions due to a greater neurophysiological vulnerability to emotional stress. Incorporating Becker et al’s (2007) idea, Reid, Duhuffar, Parhami and Fong (2012) explored whether Reid et al’s (2008) previous research could be replicated to account for predictive factors of female hypersexuality. Their study represents the first to compare ‘factors of personality across genders in a treatment seeking sample of hypersexual patients’ (2012:p.263). The findings demonstrated high levels of emotional dysregulation, including stress vulnerability and interpersonal sensitivity for both men and women compared with normative groups, with no significant difference in these levels between genders. Reid and colleagues (2012) concluded that stress vulnerability was a generalized, perpetuating risk factor for sexual addiction that men and women share. However, there are some notable and interesting variations between genders. Women reported having a much higher measure of excitement-seeking than men and exhibited greater difficulty trusting others and processing emotions, particularly anger and
resentment. Of particular relevance in light of Becker et al’s (2007) article was that 61% of hypersexual women, compared with 32% of men, indicated they have difficulty coping with stress. Reid et al.’s (2012) concluding thoughts indicate that treatment approaches for hypersexual women must centralize affect-regulating interventions and strategies for coping with stress, as well as an approach accounting for interpersonal sensitivity. While the lack of demonstrable gender difference in the findings is perhaps more problematic than helpful, these writers do also contribute by raising concerns about the paucity of attention to women with this condition. Reid et al. (2012) reflect that any therapeutic endeavour treating sexually addicted women must cultivate an experience of relational security through which they can address issues of interpersonal trust, self-confidence and affect regulation, particularly addressing the experience and expression of suppressed and unformulated feelings (2012).
Affect Regulating Interventions with Specific Clinical Presentations
The literature search located a few studies that specifically address the efficacy of affect regulating interventions with a homogenous female sample. While none of these studies specifically explore female sex addiction they do address clinical issues, which often overlap and co-occur with female hypersexuality. These include binge eating (Telch, 1997), episodic bulimia (Burton, Stice, Bearman & Rhode, 2007), deliberate self-harm (Gratz, 2007), post- traumatic stress disorder (Cloitre et al, 2004, 2008, 2010) and borderline personality disorder (Yen, Ziontnick & Costello, 2002).
Deliberate Self-Injury has been conceptualized as a compensatory strategy for emotional dysregulation and is understood to manage persistent and painful dysregulated affect (Gratz, 2007). Empirical evidence demonstrates benefits to treating deliberate self-injury using interventions specifically focused on the reduction of negative affect (Gratz & Roemer, 2004). This efficacy of affect-regulation-orientated/motivated interventions was reported in a study of hospitalized adolescents diagnosed with addictive aspects of repetitive self-harm incidents (Nixon, Cloutier & Aggarwal, 2002), with findings showing decreased levels of daily urges to self-harm, particularly in cases where the behaviour was reported to create release from unbearable tension and feelings of depression (Slee, Spinhoven, Garnefski & Arnesman, 2008). We might speculate that interventions designed to target specific emotional regulation difficulties as opposed to symptomatic criteria specific to psychological disorders could be more effective in a client group presenting with repetitive, compulsive behaviours (Slee et al., 2008).
Cloitre, Stovall-McClough, Zorbas & Charuvastra (2008) highlighted 'attachment theory as a useful understanding of the myriad of psychiatric outcomes associated with childhood
maltreatment and, in particular, the focal role that emotion regulation and interpersonal expectations may play ’ (p.282). Previously, Cloitre and colleagues (2002) empirically demonstrated the efficacy of implementing Skills Training in Affect Regulation (STAIR) with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in a sample of women. By introducing an initial treatment phase involving interpersonal and emotional regulation skill- building to their two-phase treatment approach, their findings showed an increase in therapeutic benefits. These included fewer adverse effects in therapeutic trauma work with women surviving childhood abuse. The indications points to a reciprocity between client treatment retention and outcome and levels of emotional and interpersonal regulation, which in this study also protected against post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms worsening.
These studies highlight the efficacy of affect-regulation-oriented interventions for women presenting with psychological and psychiatric conditions involving symptoms of repetitive and compulsive, out of control behaviours which are designed to manage unbearable consequences of the disequilibrium of affect. While measures of clients’ difficulty managing affect are highest for females presenting in therapy with post-traumatic stress disorder (Tull, Barrett, McMillen & Roemer, 2007) and borderline personality disorder (Gratz & Gunderson, 2006) this has not been replicated in the addiction field. At the time of writing this review, researchers at the Institute of Addiction Research in New York are exploring affect as a central change mechanism in the treatment of alcohol addiction (Stasiewicz, Bradizza, Coffy & Guliver, 2011) and hypothesize that ‘profiles will emerge that are associated with little improvement in alcohol involvement when negative affect is relatively high throughout treatment’ (Stasiewicz, Bradizza & Schlauch, 2012). It is not difficult to speculate about the importance of affect regulation as a central therapeutic method in therapy for the female sex addict given the reported likelihood of co-morbidity with these other diagnoses.