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Abstinence can have a number of meanings in psychology:

Abstinence in relation to the appetites

The term Abstinence refers to a voluntary forbearance from indulging a desire or appetite for certain bodily activities that are widely experienced as giving pleasure. Most frequently, the term refers to abstention from sexual intercourse, alcohol, or food. The practice can arise from religious prohibitions or practical considerations.

Abstinence has diverse forms. In its oldest sense it is sexual, as in the practice of continence, chastity, and celibacy. Commonly it refers to a temporary or partial abstinence from food, as in fasting. Because the regimen is intended to be a conscious act, freely chosen to enhance life, abstinence is sometimes distinguished from the psychological mechanism of repression. The latter is an unconscious state, having unhealthy consequences. Freud termed the channelling of sexual energies into other more culturally or socially acceptable activities "sublimation".

Abstinence in psychodynamic therapy

In psychoanalysis Freud introduced the abstinence rule which advocated that the therapist should not interact too much with the analysand.

Abstinence in religion

It may arise from an ascetic element present in most religions, or from a subjective need for spiritual discipline. In its religious context, abstinence is meant to elevate the believer beyond the normal life of desire, to a chosen ideal, by following a path of renunciation.

For Jews, the principal fast day is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. For Muslims, the period of fasting lasts during the whole month of Ramadan, from dawn to dusk. Both Jews and Muslims abstain from pork in their regular diet. Among Christians, Roman Catholics have traditionally abstained from food and drink prior to taking Holy Communion. They distinguish between fasting and abstinence; the former referring to the discipline of taking one full meal a day, and the latter signifying a meatless meal on fast days, such as Fridays during Lent. Many Protestants have preferred to abstain from imbibing alcohol and the use of tobacco. Mormons and many members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church abstain from certain foods and drinks by combining spiritual discipline with health concerns.

In India, Buddhists and Jains, and a number of Hindus abstain from eating meat on the grounds both of health and of reverence for all sentient forms of life. Total abstinence from feeding on the flesh of cows is a hallmark of Hinduism.


The environmental movement does not necessarily advocate abstinence from bodily pleasures such as sex, but it does promote a lifestyle in harmony with the simplicity of nature, due to the limitations of non-renewable resources. Echoes of the temperance movement, organized by women such as Susan B. Anthony to persuade people to abstain--fully or partially--from alcoholic drink, can be seen in some organizations today.

See also

Types of abstinence


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