Breast cancer patients tend to experience numerous concurrent psychological symptoms that form clusters. It has been proposed that a common psychological mechanism may underlie the membership of symptoms in a given cluster, but this hypothesis has never been investigated. Maladaptive emotion regulation (ER) is one possible common mechanism.
This study examined cross-sectional and prospective relationships between subjective (experiential avoidance, expressive suppression, and cognitive reappraisal) and objective (high-frequency heart rate variability) measures of ER and clusters of psychological symptoms among women receiving radiation therapy for breast cancer.
A total of 81 women completed a battery of self-report scales before (T1) and after (T2) radiotherapy, including measures of anxiety, depression, fear of cancer recurrence, insomnia, fatigue, pain, and cognitive impairments. Resting high-frequency heart rate variability was measured at T1.
Latent profile analyses identified between 2 and 3 clusters of patients with similar levels of symptoms at T1 and T2 and with a similar profile of symptom changes between T1 and T2. Discriminant analyses showed that higher levels of avoidance and suppression predicted membership in symptom clusters that included more severe symptoms cross-sectionally at T1 and at T2 (both P values < .0001). However, ER at T1 did not significantly predict membership in clusters of symptom changes between T1 and T2 (P = .15).
Maladaptive ER strategies, more particularly suppression and avoidance, are a possible psychological mechanism underlying clusters of cancer-related psychological symptoms.
Implications for Practice
Psychological interventions targeting maladaptive ER strategies have the potential to treat several psychological symptoms simultaneously.