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Alexithymia: Information, Symptoms and Treatment Options

  • Publish Date : 2015/08/22 - (Rev. 2018/08/22)
  • Author : Thomas C. Weiss
  • Contact : Disabled World

Synopsis: Information regarding alexithymia including signs, symptoms and possible treatment options for alexithymia.

Main Document

What is Alexithymia?

Alexithymiais is defined as a personality construct characterized by the sub-clinical inability to identify and describe emotions in the self. The core characteristics of alexithymia are marked dysfunction in emotional awareness, social attachment, and interpersonal relating. Furthermore, individuals suffering from alexithymia also have difficulty in distinguishing and appreciating the emotions of others, which is thought to lead to un-empathic and ineffective emotional responding.

There are two types of alexithymia, trait and state:

  • State alexithymia has a specific cause is is often a temporary condition. Post-traumatic stress disorder, caused by experiencing a horrifying event, is one example that is known to trigger this type of alexithymia.
  • Trait alexithymia is believed to be a characteristic inherent in a person's personality. Trait alexithymia may be, 'inborn,' or caused by events that happen in a person's early childhood such as neglect or abuse from a primary caregiver.

Alexithymia is prevalent in approximately 10% of the general population and is known to be comorbid with a number of psychiatric conditions. In studies of the general population the degree of alexithymia was found to be influenced by age, but not by gender; the rates of alexithymia in healthy controls have been found at: 8.3%; 4.7%; 8.9%; and 7%. Thus, several studies have reported that the prevalence rate of alexithymia is less than 10%.

Understanding and expressing emotions are two parts of the human experience that may be confusing for a number of people. Learning more about possible causes for a person's experience of feeling less than average emotionally and maybe asking questions to trusted professionals might help to find a way to narrow down possible solutions. What follows is more information about alexithymia to help explore the signs, symptoms and possible treatment options for alexithymia.

Symptoms of Alexithymia

Head and shoulders shot of a stressed man holding his head in his hands.
Head and shoulders shot of a stressed man holding his head in his hands.

'Alexithymia,' is a clinical term for the inability to understand the intricacies of feelings and emotions. The existence and study of alexithymic experiences started in the 1970's. Some research suggest that alexithymia is more predominant in men and it is in women.

Alexithymia is also understood to have two components;

  • A cognitive component where people might face challenges with thinking and emotions while trying to name, understand and talk about feelings.
  • An affective component where people might struggle with the experience of sharing, responding to and sensing emotions.

People who experience the effects of alexithymia might notice some different things such as:

  • A lack of impulse control
  • Violent or disruptive outbursts
  • Indifference towards other people
  • Difficulties with articulating emotions
  • Difficulties with naming different kinds of emotions
  • Struggling to identify emotions expressed by others
  • Heightened sensitivity to sights, sounds, or physical touch
  • A narrow capacity to understand the reasons behind certain emotions

Alexithymia is not just a lack of interest in emotional connection, it is rooted in psychological and neurological mishaps that can be sources of frustration for people who experience the symptoms as well as people around them. The condition also exists on a spectrum; so for some people the symptoms might interfere more largely in their lives than it does for other people.

Alexithymia and Mental Health

In a number of instances, alexithymia is a symptom of other forms of mental health conditions. To achieve a diagnosis of alexithymic symptoms, a person would need to receive evaluation of and diagnosis of a primary mental health condition. Alexithymia has been observed in people who also have:

  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Substance abuse
  • Certain brain injuries
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

Treating Alexithymia

Treatment of alexithymia may be incorporated into the overall treatment of the person's broader condition. During an evaluation, a clinician will most likely talk with the person affected for a period of time and ask them to complete surveys and additional psychological testing. Based upon the results of the person's psychological evaluation, they will have a better idea of how alexithymic symptoms may be associated with one or more forms of mental health conditions.

The treatment options for alexithymia are often times very different from typical counseling or talk therapy. For people living with alexithymia, a mental health professional will often concentrate on building a foundation of naming emotions and appreciating a range of feelings. The process will likely include both consideration of the experiences of other people and self-reflection. Even though some people with this emotional comprehension might sound very basic to others, for a person with alexithymia the process of growing their emotional intelligence and capacity may be difficult. Things such as:

  • Group therapy
  • Daily journaling
  • Skill-based therapy
  • Engaging in the creative arts
  • Various relaxation techniques
  • Reading emotional books or stories

Might be used to help cultivate skills for identifying and understanding feelings on both a surface and in-depth level. Just as with the majority of mental health or medical concerns, a formal diagnosis and treatment should be done by a mental health professional with expertise in the area. When an affected person feels ready, a licensed mental health professional may be the next best step to help ease any distress the person might be feeling. People with alexithymia need to be patient with themselves as they decide what is best for them as a person.

In the past, alexithymia was classified and limited to psychosomatic disorders, which are disorders involving physical symptoms of the person's body that are created and exacerbated by their mind. For example; a person who is very angry, yet does not express their anger, might develop a stomachache. The condition as a psychosomatic disorder often times manifests in the form of bodily symptoms and complaints of a person who is unable to effectively express their emotions. Research has revealed that it may be present in people who do not experience psychosomatic disorders or physical complaints as well.

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