The role of experiental avoidance in the relationship between perceived stress and emotional distress in a sample of university students
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The pervasiveness of mental health difficulties among students globally, and the negative effects thereof have become a cause for concern. The problem is compounded in South Africa, where a number of socioeconomic factors and a history of racial inequality create significant barriers to academic success for much of the student population. Experiential avoidance (EA) has been identified as a transdiagnostic process across a number of clinical and community populations. Consequently, the current study sought to investigate (1) whether a relationship exists between perceived stress, EA and emotional distress among South African university students, (2) whether demographic differences (gender and ethnicity) are apparent with regard to EA, emotional distress and perceived stress, and (3) whether EA mediates the relationship between perceived stress and emotional distress. A multicultural sample of South African undergraduate university students was drawn (n =1121; female = 79.9%; black = 42.5%; white = 49.1%; coloured = 8.5%; mean age = 19.9 years; SD = 1.26 years). The participants completed measures of EA (Acceptance and Action Questionnaire-II), emotional distress (General Health Questionnaire) and perceived stress (Perceived Stress Scale). Descriptive statistics, between-groups multivariate analysis and regression analyses were employed to analyse the data. The results of this study indicate that a significant and positive correlation exists between perceived stress, EA and emotional distress. No gender differences were found with regard to the study variables. However, racial differences were apparent with regard to perceived stress and emotional distress, with black and coloured participants reporting significantly higher levels of stress and emotional distress than their white counterparts. The regression analyses revealed that perceived stress and EA accounted for a significant proportion of the variance in emotional distress reported by the total sample (42.5%) and the white participants (46.1%), as well as the black and coloured participants (62.1%). Moreover, EA was found to partially mediate the relationship between perceived stress and emotional distress in the total sample, as well as in the white and black/coloured subsamples. These findings lend further support to EA as a transdiagnostic construct and suggest that interventions targeting EA might prove useful in alleviating emotional distress among university students, irrespective of their sociocultural background.