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This is a totally reasonable question.

How often do you find yourself thinking, “I wish I could stop struggling with anxiety,” only to find yourself struggling with more anxiety? At some point, we’ve all found ourselves riding the Anxiety Struggle Bus. Even thinking about trying to stop struggling can incite a struggle! Suddenly, it seems like getting off the bus is an impossible task.

Evolutionarily, anxiety serves an important role in our species survival. Like Kelly G. Wilson says, we are the children of the children of the children of the children of the people who had the ability to scan the environment for possible threats and then respond accordingly. We looked out into the distance and tried to discern whether that unidentifiable blob was a blackberry bush or a bear and once the possibility of a threat was identified (i.e. if there was uncertainty), possible threat became equivalent to an actual threat. This is how we survived.

Relational Frame Theory (RFT) asserts that this ability to conceptualize a possible threat is an outgrowth of language and arises naturally from our ability to relate one thing to another, and that using language to address problems that emerge from language creates an inevitable struggle (Wilson,, 12.3.1, 2001, Barnes-Holmes et. al., 2018).

This might be confusing or very language-y, so see if you can tolerate the distress and see it through.

The basic unit of RFT is arbitrarily applicable relational responding (AARR). It’s the process by which the relationship between two things has been established by the verbal community instead of by their physical properties (Barnes-Holmes et. al., 2018).

  1. A commonly cited example is that of two objects, a nickel and a dime. Prior to learning the verbally established relationship set forth by a society, a nonhuman can be trained to pick the nickel as bigger than the dime based on the physical size of the coin;
    1. this response may be based upon non-arbitrary or formal properties of the thing. As in, the nickel is physically bigger than the dime. Obvi.
  2. After coming in contact with the verbally established rules about value and how much more candy a dime can buy (okay, maybe this idea is from 1922 when a Klondike bar cost a dime), that human will state that the dime is bigger, or worth more. RFT sets forth that this is an arbitrarily applicable relational response (AARR);
    1. the application of this relation is arbitrary in that it has nothing to do with the actual thing, but this application is consistently used in specific ways by society (Hayes, et.a. 2001, Barnes-Holmes et. al., 2018, ).
  3. The application of this relation is also contextually relevant.
    1. For example, a jar of quarters and a jar of water have different values in different contexts (a jar of quarters gets you more in a bodega than a jar of water, but a jar of water gets you more in the desert than a jar of quarters).
  4. Language has in it contextual cues that give insight into the specific type of relation being derived.
  5. Through AARR’s core processes (mutual entailment, combinatorial entailment, and relational frames which include coordination, opposition, distinction, comparison, temporal, hierarchical, and diectic), languaging humans build complex relational networks (Barnes, et. al. 2018). Check out this GubGub Video for a bit more on this..

The interrelation of these networks (i.e. networks relating to networks) produces patterns of verbal behavior, like rule-following and problem-solving (Hughes & Barnes-Holmes, 2016a, 2016b).

It’s in the final process of AARRing, the transformation of stimulus functions, where one’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions are wrapped into relational repertoires (Barnes, et. al. 2018).

  1. This transformation of stimulus function is the basis that makes it so when one friend informs another that Paris, France, is better than Paris, Texas (a city the other friend happens to adore), this other friend may now wish to visit Paris, France, even though they’ve never been.
    1. The thoughts and feelings they have about Paris, Texas, become involved in a transformation of stimulus function, and they begin planning a week under the twinkling lights of the Eiffel Tour instead of a week in the sleepy outskirts of Dallas.
  2. Evaluation relations, a type of comparative frame, are a necessary component in the construction of verbal consequences, whereas contingency analyses include conditionality/causality. These types of relations have specific contextual cues.
    1. For example, the evaluation “Paris, Texas < Paris, France" unfolds into “Paris, France, is less than Paris, Texas.”
    2. A contingency relation can be added to the above evaluation. “If I go to Paris, Texas, for my summer vacation, then my summer will be less than if I go to Paris, France).
    3. Another contingency and evaluation can be added with ease. “If I don’t go to Paris, France, and you do, then you are more than me (because Paris, France > Paris, Texas, You = Paris France, I = Paris, Texas).”
    4. I’m really not trying to crap on Paris, Texas – it’s just an easy example. I’d happily = Paris, Texas.

From here, Mind creates shortcuts:

  • France is more than Texas
  • More is the same as Better
  • Less is the same as Worse
  • You = France
  • I = Texas
  • You are More/Better
  • I am Less/Worse

All my thoughts, feelings and emotions about France being a better place to vacation than Texas and you being better than me get wrapped into the experience of the thought (i.e. transformation of stimulus function).

Why Does This Matter? And WTF is this “experience of the thought” business?

When Mind created the shortcut that wrapped in the Better than/Worse than cue, it’s also likely to bring up every memory of every occasion where I’ve felt less than – and man, there are many! With these memories comes the shame, embarrassment, guilt, and disappointment that memories contain. So what? If I try to avoid the shame, embarrassment, guilt and disappointment of my memories (i.e if I see my emotions as a threat), my behavior will narrow in order to avoid that threat. I get on the Anxiety Struggle Bus! I’m less inclined to hang out with you, less inclined to explore Paris, Texas (which again is a lovely place!), and I might even be upset with my parents for dragging me to this “dumb city with it’s dumb fake Eiffel Tower” (enter: angsty voice of frustrated teenager). After all, Paris, Texas is not equal to Paris, France.

Okay. So RFT is about verbal relationships between stuff, the way that verbal relationships between stuff brings up memories packed with emotion, and how this process is the foundation for all psychological suffering?

Pretty much.

Okay, so it might be more complicated than that but for what we are doing here, it’s sufficient. So what do we do with this information?

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a therapy based on RFT and designed to help you get unstuck from the traps that language (and avoiding stuff) often creates. Give us a shout and let’s get unstuck together.

For more research-y stuff and the specifics on what informed this blog, check out:

  • Relational Frame Theory: Description, Evidence, and Clinical Applications. Barnes-Holmes, Y., Barnes-Holmes, D., & McEnteggart, C. Chapter in book: International ACT practical handbook. (2017).
  • Dymond, S., & Barnes, D. (1995). A transformation of self‐discrimination response functions in accordance with the arbitrarily applicable relations of sameness, more‐than, and less‐ than. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 64, 163–184.
  • Hayes, S. C., Barnes‐Holmes, D., & Roche, B. (2001). Relational frame theory: A post- Skinnerian account of human language and cognition. New York, NY: Plenum.
  • Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K., & Wilson, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. New York: Guilford Press.