Experiential Avoidance in Advanced Cancer: a Mixed-Methods Systematic Review

Int J Behav Med. 2023 Oct;30(5):585-604. doi: 10.1007/s12529-022-10131-4. Epub 2022 Oct 25.


Background: People with advanced cancer experience psychological distress due to physical symptoms, functional decline, and a limited prognosis. Difficult thoughts, feelings, and emotions may exacerbate distress and lead to avoidance of these experiences which is sometimes referred to as experiential avoidance (EA). Advanced cancer patients may be more likely to engage in EA especially when no obvious solutions to their problems exist. This study aims to examine the terms used to describe EA, the processes that might indicate EA, associations between EA and psychological distress, and to understand why individuals might engage in EA.

Methods: A mixed-methods review. Literature search of Medline, Embase, Psych INFO, and CINAHL 1980-October 2019.

Inclusion: adults ≥ 18 years; advanced cancer not amenable to cure.

Exclusion: no measures of EA or psychological distress. Risk of bias and study quality assessed. Evidence of statistical techniques collected. Themes coded, grouped, and developed based on meaning.

Results: Nineteen studies identified, 13 quantitative studies and 6 qualitative. The quantitative of which 6 compared early-stage cancers with advanced cancers and examined subscales of EA alongside mood, quality of life, and psychological distress. EA covers a range or terms of which 'avoidant coping' is the commonest. EA is manifest as cognitive, behavioural, and emotional avoidance. A thematic synthesis suggests the function of EA is to protect people from distress, and from confronting or expressing difficult emotions by avoiding communication about cancer, controlling negative information, and maintaining normality and hope and optimism.

Conclusions: EA may be beneficial in the short term to alleviate distress, but in the longer term, it can impair function and limit engagement in life. Greater clinical awareness of the complexity of EA behaviours is needed. Clinicians and researchers should define EA precisely and be aware of the function it may serve in the short and longer term. Future research studies may consider using specific measures of EA as a primary outcome, to assess the impact of psychological interventions such as ACT.

Keywords: Advanced cancer; Experiential avoidance; Mixed methods; Psycho-oncology; Systematic review.

Publication types

  • Systematic Review
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affect
  • Emotions
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms* / psychology
  • Quality of Life / psychology
  • Stress, Psychological* / psychology