Let’s look at the main symptoms of alexithymia. According to Taylor et al, 1990, they are as follows:
1) Problems identifying one’s own emotions and those of other people
2) Problems describing own emotions and those of other people
3) Problems differentiating between one’s feelings and the physical/bodily sensations of emotional arousal
4) Impoverished skills of mental imagination
DISCONNECTED FROM FEELINGS :
Those with the condition can feel very disconnected from their feelings (or may confuse their feelings with physical problems – see symptoms above) and this state of affairs often begins in childhood
RECONNECTING WITH FEELINGS :
Whilst it is possible to reconnect with one’s feelings, some people who suffer from alexithymia are resistant to the idea of doing this. This may be because they feel that a state of emotional numbness protects them and that if they allow themselves to have authentic feelings again they will be overwhelmed.
In other words, the idea of reconnecting with their feelings makes the person feel vulnerable and threatened. S/he may equate having feelings with a sign of weakness.
Such ideas are generally learned in childhood. This may be because the sufferer of alexithymia had a powerful role model who denied and suppressed/repressed his/her own feelings, so the sufferer never learned to be ‘in touch’ and ‘tuned in’ to his/her feelings nor how to express and manage them in a healthy way.
UNRESOLVED ISSUES :
Individuals with alexithymia are very likely to have issues from their childhood that remain unresolved and, also, to have feelings connected to those issues which remain unexpressed. IT IS LIKELY THAT THE INDIVIDUAL IS REPRESSING (banishing from his/her conscious awareness – an automatic psychological defense mechanism) MUCH EMOTIONAL PAIN AND ANGUISH ASSOCIATED WITH SIGNIFICANT CHILDHOOD TRAUMA.
HIGH ADULT SUSCEPTIBILITY TO ADVERSE EFFECTS OF STRESS :
As an adult, people with alexithymia may well find that they are acutely sensitive to the effects of stress and are therefore more likely to be ‘tipped over the edge’ by problems and difficulties that better emotionally adjusted people may regard as easy to cope with.
Because the sufferer of alexithymia is unconsciously dealing with so much stress anyway (repressing emotional pain is mentally exhausting) s/he has a low level of resources available to cope with any more; his/her stress tolerance is low, and mental resources to deal with it are quickly overloaded, even by demands others may view as trivial.
ALEXITHYMIA AND EATING DISORDERS:
Research into alexithymia also suggests it is connected to eating disorders. Because the sufferer’s ability to cope with day-to-day life is significantly impaired, s/he may comfort/binge eat as a way of trying to improve mood/reduce feelings of stress.
Like other potentially damaging coping strategies, (e.g. excessive drinking, gambling, over-spending, drug-taking, etc) whilst this might provide some short-term relief, its long-term effects are most unhelpful.
Instead, addressing the underlying problem through therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) should be strongly considered.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).