Therapies of Contextual Psychology

Contextual psychology doesn't seek to cure or eliminate a symptom, but rather to improve the life situation of the individual in relation to their context. Here, you can find out how this approach works.
Therapies of Contextual Psychology
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 25 November, 2022

If you’re seeking psychological support, it’s important to know which approach your therapist will employ. In fact, psychology is a heterogeneous science that encompasses many different perspectives, each with its own concepts and techniques. Over recent years, the branch of contextual psychology has experienced the most growth. Moreover, multiple studies support its effectiveness.

Throughout history, psychology has moved from being philosophically based to more empirical and pragmatic. Over time, behavioral and cognitive therapies have come into their own. Today, the so-called third-generation (or contextual) therapies are proposed as some of the most valid alternatives. They adopt a more holistic view of the individual.

Contextual psychology

Contextual psychology considers the individual in relation to their environment and surroundings. It gives relevance to their sociocultural and communicational context, taking into account that their vital situation and connection with the environment are important to understand and achieve change.

This is in contrast to previous approaches, which focused on specific symptoms and how to modify them. Attention was paid mainly to the individual, their thoughts, behaviors, and reactions. However, the importance of the global context in which they were immersed wasn’t outlined.

psychologist doing therapy
The basis of this type of therapy is functional contextualism.

The main characteristics of contextual psychology

Contextual psychology stands out for attending to the following elements:

  • When analyzing a problem, discomfort, or trend, contextual psychology looks at the function it fulfills. In other words, its effects, consequences, or the results that derive from it.
  • It generates mental associations between various aspects of reality. These associations become more complex as we grow and give rise to our way of seeing and understanding the world. If these associations are too rigid or impractical, difficulties arise.
  • Work oriented towards values and personal goals is promoted, regardless of the specific problem or discomfort.
  • The aim isn’t to resolve the specific symptom, but rather to improve the life situation of the individual and their relationship with the environment.
  • Great importance is attached to language. That’s because it helps us modulate our experiences.
  • The relationship between therapist and patient plays an important role in the change.
  • Validating and legitimizing symptoms, as well as promoting a better understanding of them, is a central component.
  • Instead of rejecting and trying to avoid discomfort at all costs, acceptance and a change of vision regarding the problem are promoted.

Therapies within contextual psychology

In short, contextual psychology doesn’t seek to cure or correct ‘defective’ behaviors. It understands that each individual acts coherently based on their context and is determined by it. Thus, a change of perspective is sought that allows the individual to be at peace with what they’re experiencing instead of fighting against it.

Within this approach, there are different therapies, also known as third-generation therapies. Although there are multiple variants, the following are some of the most well-known and relevant:

Mindfulness

More than therapy, mindfulness is a practice or technique that forms part of various therapeutic processes. The term could be defined as full consciousness. It designates a state of attention to the present without judgment. In other words, it encompasses a series of exercises that help us observe what happens to us, both internally and externally, with acceptance and presence.

Thanks to regular mindfulness practice, we can change our way of perceiving events, experiencing our emotions, and reacting.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

The basis of this therapy is the acceptance of our own thoughts, emotions, and sensations. It means we experience them without trying to do anything to make them disappear. In fact, by simply connecting with these internal elements, we manage to recontextualize them and they stop generating discomfort.

The commitment element is promoted when making the necessary changes. It’s mainly focused on acting in coherence with the values of each individual.

Dialectical behavior therapy

Also known as dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), this therapy was devised (and is mainly used) in the treatment of borderline personality disorder (BPD). Clients train in social skills to improve their relationships and their emotional regulation.

patient in therapy
Dialectical behavior therapy was created by Marsha Linehan.

Functional analytic psychotherapy

This approach works with everything that happens within the framework of the consultation and in the patient-therapist relationship. It’s the link itself (and the clinical context) that are used to elicit ‘clinically relevant behavior’. These are perceptions, emotions, and verbalizations with great meaning, and on which both therapist and client work to achieve change.

In short, contextual psychology promotes a holistic and comprehensive view of the individual in relation to their environment. It’s analyzed and worked on in a contextualized and unisolated way. The interventions derived from this approach have been shown to be effective in the treatment of various psychological disorders. Therefore, it’s likely that their relevance will continue to grow in the coming years.

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  • Dimidjian, S., Arch, J. J., Schneider, R. L., Desormeau, P., Felder, J. N., & Segal, Z. V. (2016). Considering meta-analysis, meaning, and metaphor: A systematic review and critical examination of “third wave” cognitive and behavioral therapies. Behavior therapy47(6), 886-905.
  • Kahl, K. G., Winter, L., & Schweiger, U. (2012). The third wave of cognitive behavioural therapies: what is new and what is effective?. Current opinion in psychiatry25(6), 522-528.

The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.