Date of Award

2017

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

School

School of Education

Program

Counseling Psychology, Ph.D.

First Advisor

Ronald D. Coffen

Second Advisor

Bradly K. Hinman

Third Advisor

Tevni E. Guerra Grajales

Abstract

Problem

Although the literature is clear that low emotional distress tolerance is associated with a myriad of self-damaging behaviors, very little is known about individual difference factors in distress tolerance. Both theoretical and empirical support suggest that emotional reactivity and learned helplessness may be individual difference factors in distress tolerance. Specifically, individuals with high emotional reactivity and high learned helplessness may be at risk for low distress tolerance. Further research was needed to clarify the role of emotional reactivity and learned helplessness in distress tolerance in the context of self-damaging behaviors.

Method

Participants completed surveys which measured their (a) emotional reactivity, (b) learned helplessness, (c) distress tolerance, (d) two-week frequency of self-damaging behaviors, and (e) lifetime frequency of self-damaging behaviors. Structural equation modeling was used to test two models for the role of emotional reactivity and learned helplessness in distress tolerance. The first model was in the context of two-week frequency of self-damaging behaviors and the second model was in the context of lifetime frequency of self-damaging behaviors.

Results

Structural equation modeling indicated that the original models were a poor fit for the data. So, both models were revised on the basis of theory and modification indices. The revised models revealed that emotional reactivity and learned helplessness had negative direct effects on distress tolerance. Together, emotional reactivity and learned helplessness explained 70% of the observed variance in distress tolerance. Distress tolerance had a negative direct effect on two-week frequency of self-damaging behaviors, explaining 7% of the observed variance. Distress tolerance had a negative direct effect and depression had a positive direct effect on lifetime frequency of self-damaging behaviors, together explaining 36% of the observed variance.

Conclusions

This study confirmed emotional reactivity and learned helplessness as important individual difference factors in emotional distress tolerance. It suggests that high emotional reactivity and high learned helplessness contribute to low distress tolerance. This study also demonstrated that distress tolerance explains a small amount of variance in two-week frequency of self-damaging behaviors. Whereas, distress tolerance together with depression explains a larger amount of variance in lifetime frequency of self-damaging behaviors. These results have implications for researchers studying distress tolerance and self-damaging behaviors, clinicians treating clients with difficulty managing distress or with self-damaging behaviors, and individuals developing preventative initiatives to reduce the development of self-damaging behaviors. In particular, this study suggests that emotional reactivity may be an important target of clinical intervention and preventative education.

Subject Area

Self-destructive behavior; Distress (Psychology); Helplessness (Psychology);

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