A substantial minority of deployed Gulf War veterans developed posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and several chronic illnesses. Although military combat and exposure to certain nuclear, biological, and chemical agents (NBCs) increase risk for post-deployment health problems, they do not fully explain many Gulf War veteran health diagnoses and are not viable treatment targets. Experiential avoidance (EA; one’s unwillingness to remain in contact with unpleasant internal experiences) is a modifiable psychosocial risk factor associated with PTSD and depression in veterans as well as pain and gastrointestinal diseases in the general population. In this study, we recruited a national sample of deployed Gulf War veterans (N = 454) to test the hypothesis that greater EA would be significantly associated with higher lifetime odds of PTSD, depression, “Gulf War Illness” (GWI/CMI), and other chronic illnesses common in this veteran cohort. Participants completed a self-report battery assessing demographic, military-related, and health-related information. Multivariate analyses showed that after adjusting for age, sex, race, combat exposure, and NBC exposure, worse EA was associated with higher lifetime odds of PTSD, depression GWI/CMI, gastrointestinal problems, irritable bowel syndrome, arthritis, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome (ORs ranged 1.25 to 2.89; effect sizes ranged small to large), but not asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Our findings suggest medical and mental health providers alike should assess for EA and potentially target EA as part of a comprehensive, biopsychosocial approach to improving Gulf War veterans’ health and wellbeing. Study limitations and future research directions are also discussed.
Published by Elsevier Ltd.