Stuck in the spin cycle: Avoidance and intrusions following breast cancer diagnosis

Margaret R. Bauer, Joshua F. Wiley, Karen L. Weihs, Annette L. Stanton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Objectives: Theories and research regarding cognitive and emotional processing during the experience of profound stressors suggest that the presence of intrusive thoughts and feelings predicts greater use of avoidance and that the use of avoidance paradoxically predicts more intrusions. However, empirical investigations of their purported bidirectional relationship are limited. Design: This study presents a longitudinal investigation of the reciprocal relationship between intrusions and avoidance coping over a 6-month period in the year following breast cancer diagnosis. Methods: Breast cancer patients (N = 460) completed measures of cancer-related intrusions and avoidance at study entry, 3 months, and 6 months later (i.e., an average of 2, 5, and 8 months after diagnosis, respectively). Results: Cross-lagged panel analyses revealed that intrusive thoughts, feelings, and images at study entry predicted greater avoidance 3 months later, and avoidance coping at study entry predicted intrusions 3 months later, controlling for the stability of intrusions and avoidance as well as time since diagnosis. Findings were not statistically significant for avoidance predicting intrusions, or vice versa, between the 3-month and the 6-month assessment period, during which they declined. Conclusions: These findings provide empirical support for the theoretical contention that avoidance and intrusive thoughts and emotions reciprocally influence one another following stressful events. Additionally, in the months shortly after breast cancer diagnosis, intrusions and avoidance are positively related. However, the relationships attenuate over time, which could indicate resolved cognitive and emotional processing of the cancer experience. Statement of contribution What is already known on this subject? Following stressful life events, individuals often experience intrusive thoughts and feelings related to the event and they report avoidance of such reminders. Many studies demonstrate that greater intrusions predict more subsequent use of avoidance coping, and other studies show that greater use of avoidance predicts more intrusions. Their reciprocal relation has not been examined, however. What does this study add? This is the first examination of the concurrent, reciprocal influence of intrusions and avoidance. Findings suggest that accounting for the bidirectional influence of avoidance and intrusions best estimates hypothesized models. Higher intrusions and avoidance predicted each other for the first 3 months after study entry, but the relationship diminished 6 months after study entry, perhaps due to productive mental processing of the stress of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)609-626
Number of pages18
JournalBritish Journal of Health Psychology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2017


  • avoidance
  • cancer
  • cognitive processing
  • coping
  • intrusive thoughts

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Applied Psychology


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