VERMILLION, S.D. – Christopher Berghoff, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at the University of South Dakota, studies what is loosely referred to as the “third wave” of psychological treatment for individuals struggling with mental illness.
“The first wave of psychological treatment was behavioral in focus and the second wave brought in our thoughts, or cognition,” Berghoff said. “The third wave encompasses a lot of acceptance- and mindfulness-based treatments. And now we’re focusing more on the emotion piece.”
The specific treatment approach Berghoff studies is called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (“ACT,” said as one word), based on contextual behavioral science. “I can’t understand your behavior without understanding the context of your life,” he explained. “Everything we do trys to understand the world through that lens.”
ACT, which is provided through the Department of Psychology’s Psychological Services Center, teaches individuals to be mindful and accept painful experiences and negative thoughts that are part of daily life, while also committing to behavioral actions that move them toward becoming the person they want to be. This approach helps those who struggle coping with challenges to be psychologically flexible and respond more effectively to problems, Berghoff said. “Sometimes it’s not all that fun being a human being, and yet we can still move forward and do things that really matter to us even if we experience anxiety, for example.”
Berghoff’s active research laboratory on USD’s campus includes graduate clinical psychology students as well as undergraduate research assistants. He also collaborates with researchers throughout the country. Current studies in Berghoff’s lab include efforts to document the effects of mindfulness interventions on healthy eating behaviors, the extent self-compassion can help individuals suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, how emotions relate to social success and what behavioral variables can help police officers cope with traumatic events.
His recently published research further demonstrates the diversity of applications of the psychological flexibility approach. Berghoff’s work has shown that allergy patients can use behavioral mindfulness techniques to counter depression and improve their allergy symptoms, for instance. Another study showed that individuals experiencing anxiety improved after working on their own through self-help workbooks that guided them through the ACT process. These results are particularly meaningful for residents of rural areas who may not have ready access to an inpatient clinic.
“It’s a way to get this treatment in people’s hands quickly and cheaply,” Berghoff said.
An essential benefit of ACT and the psychological flexibility model that Berghoff studies is that the approach does not just focus on symptom reduction. “It’s a model that talks not only about human suffering, but also about human vitality—the things that bring richness to your life,” he said. “That is really exemplified by the broad range of topics that my graduate students and I work on. It makes for a vibrant lab.”