Peter Elsass

Peter Elsass


Primary fields of research

Peter Elsass is professor in clinical health psychology. His subject area includes health and illness behaviour within the areas of treatment and prevention, primarily in relation to somatic conditions. In international context, Health psychology often involves large empirical and evidence-based research that is guided by behavioural models within the field of natural science and medical science.

But in many medical contexts there is a growing need (and a call) for theories, concepts and methods developed within a humanistic context (i.e. anthropology, psychology, history, linguistics, and philosophy).

The purpose of Health psychology is to supply medical science with an understanding of e.g. disease and treatment, derived from the humanities.

Much research in health psychology, is based on the split between natural science and humanistic disciplines. To do away with this gulf is mandatory in order to open up the possibilities for new ways of thinking. Science-Technology-Society studies (STS) add fresh resources to the field.

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His theoretical works has been concretized by examining cases taken from our own empirical research, e.g. a textbook is published used in higher education in health professions.


Studies of medical praxis involving cross sectional collaboration with psychology, e.g. genetic counseling, fatigue symptoms in rehabilitating clients, and the computer in clinical practice. E.g. a book about the psychosocial aspect of daily life with cancer is a result of collaboration between psychology and medicine.

International engagement

The cross sectional work contains an international engagement in a globalized world in which poverty is the greatest cause of disease. The first textbook of cultural psychology is based at empirical research and articles of our work in Tibet and Latinamerica. The main subjects are torture survivors and their coping, maternal care and autonomy of ethnic groups.

Clinical work

Despite the humanistic working model do have top priority in his work, involvement in evidence based treatment studies is also considered important. A handbook present an overview of assessments methods of psychopathology and empirical CRT studies concretize how to assess groups as e.g. criminals and cancerpatients and to evaluate interventions as e.g. mindfulness.

 Religion and spirituality

There is a growing interest to include spirituality into the discipline of psychology. E.g. a new concept of ’spiritual attachment’ has emerged and treatment as ACT and mindfulness do justify part of their praxis in Buddhism and spirituality. One of our publications is an introduction to Buddhist Psychology, with a specific focus of how we in the West do construct our own Buddhisme without concrete references to the thousands of Buddhist text in the East.


Research in progress



Background: Unstructured self-presentations is an seldom used assessment method.To ask people to present themselves gives empirical data with a respectful and loyal attitude to their uniqueness. The research in health psychology has a long tradition of working with these kind of unstructured narratives e.g. within film and stillphotos and have published in international anthropological jounals.

Elsass, P.: Self-reflection or self-presentation. A study of the advocacy effect.    Visual Anthropology. 1991, 4, 167-173.

Hastrup, K., Elsass, P.: Anthropological advocacy. A contradiction in terms?   Current Anthropology. 1990, 3, 301-311.

Elsass, P.: Strategies for survival. Two films about indian tribes in South America. Statens Film Central. 1993.

 In progress

* Living apart. The Arhuaco-indians self-presentations in their fight for ethnic survival.

The author has visit the Arhuaco-indians in Colombia 18 times since 1974 and have published both films, articles and books about them. After a standby of 18 years Peter Elsass returned back in 2012 and gave them a camera for producing their own film. (Funding: Danida and FKK).

* Jensen CG, Elsass P, Neustrup L, Bihal T, Flyger H, Kay SM, Khan S, Jensen SS, Pedersen A, Würtzen H.: What to listen for in the consultation. Breast cancer patients' own focus on talking about acceptance-based psychological coping predicts decreased psychological distress and depression. Journal of Patienteducation and counseling 2014 Nov; 97(2):165-72

This study aimed to potentiate the use the opening of consultation processes . 97 patients with breast cancer were asked to present themselves and their illness before the first meeting with an upcoming treatment. Every sentence in the self-presentations were categorized thematically, and the percentage of words spent on the most prevalent categories were compared to responses of validated, quantitative self-report scales of distress (Funding: Vifab and KB).

Loneliness and solitude.

Background: Clinical psychology has a main interest in relationships with other persons, attachment pattern and mentalization. Very little research is focusing on non-attachment in different kinds of spiritual retreat.

Elsass, P. (2008). Spiritual attachment. Examples of the healing potential of solitude. Nordic Psychology. 60. 1. 72 – 84.

 In progress

* 14 Buddhist nuns from North India have, in collaboration with two Tibetan lamas, told their life stories about their years long retreat. Their personal presentations were systematically coded within a Buddhist view of “attachment”, “the self” and “enlightenment”. Our results were compared to life stories told by western Buddhists.  The Carlsberg foundation have sponsored an interview study of Catholic hermits and of New Age followers living in retreat.

* Elsass, P.: Kunsten at leve alene. En introduction til ensomhedens psykologi. Gyldendal.

* Elsass, P., Frøsig, A., Lhundup, K., Nielsen, D.E. (2011): Spiritualitet som overlevelse hos tibetanske flygtninge. En analyse af livshistorier hos buddhistiske nonner i mangeårigt retreat. Psyke & Logos. 2011.

Drop outs.

Background: Non-compliance and dropout are common problems in mental health promotion interventions but are rarely examined. Dropout rates typically ranges 15-30%, nevertheless, the knowledge on optimal strategies for assessment and implementation to lower dropout rates is limited.

In progress:

The epedemic of mindfulness is questioned by studies of patients who do not comply with meditation as treatment in several settings.

* Danelund, J.R., Bihal, T., Flyger, Henrik; Kay, S.M., Khan, S., Jensen, C.G, Jensen, Elsass, P. (2014). What works for whom in mindfulness. An quantitative and qualitative comparison of 60 compliant breast cancer patients evaluation of mindfulness-intervention with 40 drop outs. A linguistic study of self-presentations. Journal of Religion and Science, 61, 74 – 88.

*The present project investigates qualitative and quantitative factors for dropout from a public stress reduction program in the municipality of Copenhagen, the so-called Open and Calm (OC) program. Interviews with 50 dropouts will aim to reveal perceived reasons for dropout through an unstructured 10-minute self-presentation followed by a 10-minute semi-structured interview concerning affective and instrumental dimensions of the therapeutic working alliance, and the interviewees’ illness perception, respectively. The instrumental dimension comprises the technical (e.g., biological, materialistic) core service; the affective dimension refers to the personal relationship between the therapist and the participant. By specifying the working alliance theoretically in these two dimensions, the pre-defined purpose is to analyze (quantitatively and qualitatively) these dimensions separately as well as a combined factor for dropout.

Helsefonden og Københavns kommune have sponsored the projects

Buddhist Psychology.

Background: The Tibetan refugees use a kind of spiritual mindfulness to cope with political terror in China. But for them spirituality is much more than being mindful. Video examples illustrates how Buddhist Lamas question our Western use of Buddhist meditative methods.

Elsass, P., Carlsson, J., Jespersen, K., Phuntsok, K.(2007): Tibetansk buddhisme som coping-mekanisme. Interviews med tibetanske torturoverlevere om deres måde at overkomme traumer på. Psyke & Logos. 1.

Elsass P, Phuntsok K.  (2008): Tibetans’ coping mechanism following torture. An interview study of Tibetan torture survivors’ use of coping mechanisms and how these were supported by western counselling. Traumatology; 15: 3 – 10.

Elsass P, Carlsson J, Jespersen K, Phuntsok K. (2010): Questioning Western assessment of trauma among Tibetan torture survivors. A quantitative assessment study and the comments of Buddhist Lamas. Torture.

Elsass, P. (2011): Buddhas veje; en introduction til buddhistisk psykologi. Dansk psykologisk Forlag, København.

In progres

Attitude to Western assesments among Tibetan Buddhists. 60 Buddhist lamas’ have responded to Western questionnaires about mindfulness (FFCQ) and therapeutic development and praxis (DPCCQ).

In this study 60 high ranking Buddhist priest of the Geshe status, who declared that counseling were an important part of their daily activities responded to Western questionnaires of both mindfulness (FFMQ) and therapeutic practice (DPCCQ). The aim was to investigate the applicability of these assessments methods in the East.

* Elsass, P., Rønnestad, MH., Gaden Jensen, C., Lhundup, K., Phuntsok, T., Orlinsky, D.: Warmth and Challenge as Common Factors among Eastern and Western Counselors: Buddhist Lamas’ Responses to Western Questionnaires. (Submitted).

Near death experiences

Background: Near death experiences, NDE, are patients’ experiences of being alive in situations where professionals have declared them death or dying. Most of NDEs are considered to be mystical and beyond common sense by the medical staff, but realistic and authentic by the patient.

In Progress: One of the authors has experienced episodes of NDE during a life threatening attack by the killer bacteria (Necrotica Fasciliitis). The NDEs were experienced as authentic and had a detailed presence which transcend traditional clinical psychology’s notions of altered states of consciousness and psychiatry’s concepts of psychosis and ‘intensive delir’.

Even though NDE has a prevalence of 30 – 40% among patients in intensive care units very little is published in scientific journals within e.g. medicine and neurophysiology. In contrast thousands examples are presented at the Internet in dedicated forums and they even have their own television channel.

The purpose is to illustrate how the formal standards of death are provoked of these subjective NDE. By giving specific examples of the one author’s experiences it is discussed how subjective standards establish their own context in order to preserve and survive the authentic subject.

* Elsass, P., Lauritsen, P.: Near death experiences. A case of how user standards find their own presence even if professionals deny them access to medical journals. (Submitted to Int. J. Subjectivity)


The prevalence of traumatic states and life qualities for different kinds of movement disorders. A questionnaire study of more than 400 persons with movement hamdicaps with a focus on late-effects. Furthermore a theoretical and clinical analysis of the usefulness of the concept of trauma in disorders of polio, cerebral parese og paraplegi.

* Nyrup, M., Elsass, P.(2015) : Psychological symptomsm in persons ageing with polio, Spinal cord injuries and cerebral palsy; health or pathology. ??? (Submitted)

* Nyrup, M., Elsass, P. (2015): Pain, depression and trauma symptoms in persons ageing with physical disabilities; prevalencies and impact. (submitted)

* Nyrup, M., Elsass, P. (2015): The impact of early hospitalization on later psychological well-being in people ageing with physical disability. (Submitted ???)

Traumer efter naturkatastrofer og psychosocial interventions after natural disasters; an analysis of evidence and recommendations for practice. Bl.a.  empirisk undersøgelse af et stort antal evalueringsrapporter af Tsunami-katastrofen og en kritik af de såkaldte Sphere-indikatorer.

* Henderson, S.H., Elsass, P. (2015) Predictors of trauma and distres five years after the Indian Ocean tusnami in Sri Lanka. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction. In press

* Henderson, S, Elsass, P. Beliner, P, (2015) Mental and social health in disasters. Relating the Sphere standards to post-tsunami psycholosocial interventions I Asia. Disasters. (in press)

* Sveaas, N., Agger, I., Elsass, P., Hamber, B.: (2014) Surviving Gross Human RightsViolations: Exploring Survivors Experience of Justice and Reparation.  In Cooper and Ratele (eds): PSYCHOLOGY SERVING HUMANITY Vol. II

Health Pscyhology; a metastudy

The field of Health psychology is becoming more and more fragmented and devided in subfields. This is also the terms for the Humanistic Health Reseach activities. Systematic literature studies are done of one of our ph.d. students.




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