What is Alexithymia?

Introduction

Alexithymia is a personality trait characterised by the subclinical inability to identify and describe emotions experienced by one’s self or others. The core characteristic of alexithymia is marked dysfunction in emotional awareness, social attachment, and interpersonal relation. Furthermore, people with alexithymia have difficulty distinguishing and appreciating the emotions of others, which is thought to lead to nonempathic and ineffective emotional responses.

Alexithymia occurs in approximately 10% of the population and can occur with a number of psychiatric conditions as well as any neurodevelopmental disorder. When the difficulty with recognising and talking about their emotions appears at subclinical levels in men who conform to western cultural notions of masculinity (such as thinking that sadness is a feminine emotion), it may be called normative male alexithymia.

Classification

Alexithymia is considered to be a personality trait that places affected individuals at risk for other medical and psychiatric disorders while reducing the likelihood that these individuals will respond to conventional treatments for the other conditions. Alexithymia is not classified as a mental disorder in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). It is a dimensional personality trait that varies in intensity from person to person. A person’s alexithymia score can be measured with questionnaires such as the:

  • Toronto Alexithymia Scale, 20 or 26 items (TAS-20 or TAS-26);
  • The Bermond-Vorst Alexithymia Questionnaire (BVAQ);
  • Online Alexithymia Questionnaire (OAQ-G2); or
  • Observer Alexithymia Scale (OAS).

It is distinct from the psychiatric personality disorders, such as antisocial personality disorder.

Alexithymia is defined by:

  • Difficulty identifying feelings and distinguishing between feelings and the bodily sensations of emotional arousal.
  • Difficulty describing feelings to other people.
  • Constricted imaginal processes, as evidenced by a scarcity of fantasies.
  • A stimulus-bound, externally orientated cognitive style.

Studies have reported that the prevalence rate of alexithymia is less than 10% of the population. A less common finding suggests that there may be a higher prevalence of alexithymia amongst males than females, which may be accounted for by difficulties some males have with “describing feelings”, but not by difficulties in “identifying feelings” in which males and females show similar abilities.

Psychologist R. Michael Bagby and psychiatrist Graeme J. Taylor have argued that the alexithymia construct is inversely related to the concepts of psychological mindedness and emotional intelligence and there is “strong empirical support for alexithymia being a stable personality trait rather than just a consequence of psychological distress”.

Signs and Symptoms

Typical deficiencies may include problems identifying, processing, describing, and working with one’s own feelings, often marked by a lack of understanding of the feelings of others; difficulty distinguishing between feelings and the bodily sensations of emotional arousal; confusion of physical sensations often associated with emotions; few dreams or fantasies due to restricted imagination; and concrete, realistic, logical thinking, often to the exclusion of emotional responses to problems. Those who have alexithymia also report very logical and realistic dreams, such as going to the store or eating a meal. Clinical experience suggests it is the structural features of dreams more than the ability to recall them that best characterises alexithymia.

Some alexithymic individuals may appear to contradict the above-mentioned characteristics because they can experience chronic dysphoria or manifest outbursts of crying or rage. However, questioning usually reveals that they are quite incapable of describing their feelings or appear confused by questions inquiring about specifics of feelings.

According to Henry Krystal, individuals suffering from alexithymia think in an operative way and may appear to be superadjusted to reality. In psychotherapy, however, a cognitive disturbance becomes apparent as patients tend to recount trivial, chronologically ordered actions, reactions, and events of daily life with monotonous detail. In general, these individuals can, but not always, seem oriented toward things and even treat themselves as robots. These problems seriously limit their responsiveness to psychoanalytic psychotherapy; psychosomatic illness or substance abuse is frequently exacerbated should these individuals enter psychotherapy.

A common misconception about alexithymia is that affected individuals are totally unable to express emotions verbally and that they may even fail to acknowledge that they experience emotions. Even before coining the term, Sifneos (1967) noted patients often mentioned things like anxiety or depression. The distinguishing factor was their inability to elaborate beyond a few limited adjectives such as “happy” or “unhappy” when describing these feelings. The core issue is that people with alexithymia have poorly differentiated emotions limiting their ability to distinguish and describe them to others. This contributes to the sense of emotional detachment from themselves and difficulty connecting with others, making alexithymia negatively associated with life satisfaction even when depression and other confounding factors are controlled for.

Associated Conditions

Alexithymia frequently co-occurs with other disorders. Research indicates that alexithymia overlaps with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). In a 2004 study using the TAS-20, 85% of the adults with ASD fell into the impaired category; almost half of adults with ASD fell into the severely impaired category. Among the adult control, only 17% was impaired; none of them severely. Fitzgerald & Bellgrove pointed out that, “Like alexithymia, Asperger’s syndrome is also characterised by core disturbances in speech and language and social relationships”. Hill & Berthoz agreed with Fitzgerald & Bellgrove (2006) and in response stated that “there is some form of overlap between alexithymia and ASDs”. They also pointed to studies that revealed impaired theory of mind skill in alexithymia, neuroanatomical evidence pointing to a shared aetiology and similar social skills deficits. The exact nature of the overlap is uncertain. Alexithymic traits in AS may be linked to clinical depression or anxiety; the mediating factors are unknown and it is possible that alexithymia predisposes to anxiety. On the other hand, while the total alexithymia score as well as the difficulty in identifying feelings and externally oriented thinking factors are found to be significantly associated with ADHD, and while the total alexithymia score, the difficulty in identifying feelings, and the difficulty in describing feelings factors are also significantly associated with symptoms of hyperactivity/impulsivity, there’s no significant relationship between alexithymia and inattentiveness symptom.

There are many more psychiatric disorders that overlap with alexithymia. One study found that 41% of US veterans of the Vietnam War with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were alexithymic. Another study found higher levels of alexithymia among Holocaust survivors with PTSD compared to those without. Higher levels of alexithymia among mothers with interpersonal violence-related PTSD were found in one study to have proportionally less caregiving sensitivity. This latter study suggested that when treating adult PTSD patients who are parents, alexithymia should be assessed and addressed also with attention to the parent-child relationship and the child’s social-emotional development.

Single study prevalence findings for other disorders include 63% in anorexia nervosa, 56% in bulimia, 45% to 50% in major depressive disorder, 34% in panic disorder, 28% in social phobia, and 50% in substance abusers. Alexithymia is also exhibited by a large proportion of individuals with acquired brain injuries such as stroke or traumatic brain injury.

Alexithymia is correlated with certain personality disorders, particularly schizoid, avoidant, dependent and schizotypal, substance use disorders, some anxiety disorders and sexual disorders as well as certain physical illnesses, such as hypertension, inflammatory bowel disease and functional dyspepsia. Alexithymia is further linked with disorders such as migraine headaches, lower back pain, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, nausea, allergies and fibromyalgia.

An inability to modulate emotions is a possibility in explaining why some people with alexithymia are prone to discharge tension arising from unpleasant emotional states through impulsive acts or compulsive behaviours such as binge eating, substance abuse, perverse sexual behaviour or anorexia nervosa. The failure to regulate emotions cognitively might result in prolonged elevations of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and neuroendocrine systems, which can lead to somatic diseases. People with alexithymia also show a limited ability to experience positive emotions leading Krystal (1988) and Sifneos (1987) to describe many of these individuals as anhedonic.

Causes

It is unclear what causes alexithymia, though several theories have been proposed.

Early studies showed evidence that there may be an interhemispheric transfer deficit among people with alexithymia; that is, the emotional information from the right hemisphere of the brain is not being properly transferred to the language regions in the left hemisphere, as can be caused by a decreased corpus callosum, often present in psychiatric patients who have suffered severe childhood abuse. A neuropsychological study in 1997 indicated that alexithymia may be due to a disturbance to the right hemisphere of the brain, which is largely responsible for processing emotions. In addition, another neuropsychological model suggests that alexithymia may be related to a dysfunction of the anterior cingulate cortex. These studies have some shortcomings, however, and the empirical evidence about the neural mechanisms behind alexithymia remains inconclusive.

French psychoanalyst Joyce McDougall objected to the strong focus by clinicians on neurophysiological explanations at the expense of psychological ones for the genesis and operation of alexithymia, and introduced the alternative term “disaffectation” to stand for psychogenic alexithymia. For McDougall, the disaffected individual had at some point “experienced overwhelming emotion that threatened to attack their sense of integrity and identity”, to which they applied psychological defences to pulverise and eject all emotional representations from consciousness. A similar line of interpretation has been taken up using the methods of phenomenology. McDougall has also noted that all infants are born unable to identify, organize, and speak about their emotional experiences (the word infans is from the Latin “not speaking”), and are “by reason of their immaturity inevitably alexithymic”. Based on this fact McDougall proposed in 1985 that the alexithymic part of an adult personality could be “an extremely arrested and infantile psychic structure”. The first language of an infant is nonverbal facial expressions. The parent’s emotional state is important for determining how any child might develop. Neglect or indifference to varying changes in a child’s facial expressions without proper feedback can promote an invalidation of the facial expressions manifested by the child. The parent’s ability to reflect self-awareness to the child is another important factor. If the adult is incapable of recognizing and distinguishing emotional expressions in the child, it can influence the child’s capacity to understand emotional expressions.

Molecular genetic research into alexithymia remains minimal, but promising candidates have been identified from studies examining connections between certain genes and alexithymia among those with psychiatric conditions as well as the general population. A study recruiting a test population of Japanese males found higher scores on the Toronto Alexithymia Scale among those with the 5-HTTLPR homozygous long (L) allele. The 5-HTTLPR region on the serotonin transporter gene influences the transcription of the serotonin transporter that removes serotonin from the synaptic cleft, and is well studied for its association with numerous psychiatric disorders. Another study examining the 5-HT1A receptor, a receptor that binds serotonin, found higher levels of alexithymia among those with the G allele of the Rs6295 polymorphism within the HTR1A gene. Also, a study examining alexithymia in subjects with obsessive-compulsive disorder found higher alexithymia levels associated with the Val/Val allele of the Rs4680 polymorphism in the gene that encodes Catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT), an enzyme which degrades catecholamine neurotransmitters such as dopamine. These links are tentative, and further research will be needed to clarify how these genes relate to the neurological anomalies found in the brains of people with alexithymia.

Although there is evidence for the role of environmental and neurological factors, the role and influence of genetic factors for developing alexithymia is still unclear. A single large scale Danish study suggested that genetic factors contributed noticeably to the development of alexithymia. However, such twin studies are controversial, as they suffer from the “equal environments assumption” and the “heritability” estimates in no way correspond to actual DNA structures. Traumatic brain injury is also implicated in the development of alexithymia, and those with traumatic brain injury are six times more likely to exhibit alexithymia.

In Relationships

Alexithymia can create interpersonal problems because these individuals tend to avoid emotionally close relationships, or if they do form relationships with others they usually position themselves as either dependent, dominant, or impersonal, “such that the relationship remains superficial”. Inadequate “differentiation” between self and others by alexithymic individuals has also been observed. Their difficulty in processing interpersonal connections often develops where the person lacks a romantic partner.

In a study, a large group of alexithymic individuals completed the 64-item Inventory of Interpersonal Problems (IIP-64) which found that “two interpersonal problems are significantly and stably related to alexithymia: cold/distant and non-assertive social functioning. All other IIP-64 subscales were not significantly related to alexithymia.”

Chaotic interpersonal relations have also been observed by Sifneos. Due to the inherent difficulties identifying and describing emotional states in self and others, alexithymia also negatively affects relationship satisfaction between couples.

In a 2008 study alexithymia was found to be correlated with impaired understanding and demonstration of relational affection, and that this impairment contributes to poorer mental health, poorer relational well-being, and lowered relationship quality. Individuals high on the alexithymia spectrum also report less distress at seeing others in pain and behave less altruistically toward others.

Some individuals working for organisations in which control of emotions is the norm might show alexithymic-like behaviour but not be alexithymic. However, over time the lack of self-expressions can become routine and they may find it harder to identify with others.

Treatment

Because alexithymia is still a fairly newly classified disorder without much research as of 2020, there are not many proven treatment options available.

In 2002, Kennedy and Franklin found that a skills-based intervention is an effective method for treating alexithymia. Kennedy and Franklin’s treatment plan involved giving the participants a series of questionnaires, psychodynamic therapies, cognitive behavioural and skills-based therapies, and experiential therapies. After treatment, they found that participants were generally less ambivalent about expressing their emotion feelings and more attentive to their emotional states.

In 2018, Löf, Clinton, Kaldo, and Rydén found that mentalisation-based treatment is also an effective method for treating alexithymia. Mentalisation is the ability to understand the mental state of oneself or others that underlies overt behaviour, and mentalisation-based treatment helps patients separate their own thoughts and feelings from those around them. This treatment is relational, and it focuses on gaining a better understanding and use of mentalising skills. The researchers found that all of the patients’ symptoms including alexithymia significantly improved, and the treatment promoted affect tolerance and the ability to think flexibly while expressing intense affect rather than impulsive behaviour.

A significant issue impacting alexithymia treatment is that alexithymia has comorbidity with other disorders. Mendelson’s 1982 study showed that alexithymia frequently presented in people with undiagnosed chronic pain. Participants in Kennedy and Franklin’s study all had anxiety disorders in conjunction with alexithymia, while those in Löf et al. were diagnosed with both alexithymia and borderline personality disorder. All these comorbidity issues complicate treatment because it is difficult to examine people who exclusively have alexithymia.

Lexicology

The term alexithymia was coined by psychotherapists John Case Nemiah and Peter Sifneos in 1973. The word comes from Greek: ἀ- (a-, ‘not’) + λέξις (léxis, ‘words’) + θῡμός (thȳmós, ‘heart’ or ’emotions’ or ‘seat of speech’) (cf. dyslexia), literally meaning “no words for emotions”.

Another etymology: Greek: Αλεξ(ι)θυμία άλεξ (διώχνω, απομακρίνω) to push away + θυμός emotion, feelings. Means to push away emotions, feelings

Nonmedical terms describing similar conditions include emotionless and impassive. People with the condition are called alexithymics or alexithymiacs.

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