Understanding alexithymia: The inability to feel emotions

Kristen_HouseArticle2_WRAnewsletter_Alexithymia Newsletter_20150612

Sullen, sad, quiet, gloomy and ill-tempered are some words that people might use to describe a teenager who is depressed and has a flat affect, or reduced emotional expression. Instead of understanding why the teen is like this, they might label him or her as “dark” or a “person that has no feeling.” Interestingly, there is a clinical term that is used to describe the feelings of nothingness or emotional blindness experienced by some. In 1972, Peter Sifneos, M.D., introduced to psychiatry the term alexithymia, which is derived from the Greek language and literally means having no words for emotions.

Alexithymia is not a diagnosis, but a construct useful for characterizing individuals who seem not to understand the feelings they obviously experience, individuals who also seem to lack the words to describe these feelings to others. Alexithymia is not just about difficulty describing and distinguishing feelings but also about having limited imagination and, therefore, little or no fantasies and limited dreams. It also can be described as an unawareness of what is happening in an individual’s own mind.

Studies have shown that alexithymia has two dimensions:

  • a cognitive dimension, in which a child or adult struggles to identify, interpret and verbalize feelings (the thinking part of the emotional experience)
  • an affective dimension, in which difficulties arise in reacting, expressing, feeling and imagining (the experiencing part of the emotional experience)

Linked to other disorders

Interestingly, studies have linked alexithymia to Asperger’s syndrome and other pervasive developmental disorders (PDDs). This is because people who have a form of PDDs usually have problems with social interactions, similarly as those who are affected with alexithymia.

People with alexithymia typically are emotionally stoic, avoid emotional topics and focus more on concrete objective statements. They still go through life in a normal fashion, such as obtaining a job and getting married, but many of their relationships often end because they lack any emotional connection to their loved ones.

Many people are quick to dismiss quiet or stoic teenagers as “just being teenagers” or will try to diagnose them with a mood disorder; however the adolescents might really be unable to express their emotions due to an underlying cause like alexithymia or a PDD.

Alexithymia has also been linked to depression, anxiety and eating disorders; therefore, this emotional bluntness should be investigated further to see if an underlying mental or emotional pathology might be the cause.

Help them to feel

Parents, educators and loved ones of children and adults with alexithymia need to realize that the missed cues, flat reactions or lack of emotional recognition have real neurobiological and psychological origins. Don’t punish, shame or mock their emotional unresponsiveness.

Journaling, reading novels, getting involved in expressive arts, such as dance and music, can help individuals get in touch with their emotions and learn to feel. Psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and group therapy, have also been shown to help people with alexithymia.

It is important to recognize those with alexithymia to prevent future unhappiness, broken relationships and even depression. White River Academy specializes in treating behavioral problems and mental health disorders, such as Asperger’s syndrome and depression, as well as substance abuse and co-occurring conditions. This boarding school-style residential rehab provides comprehensive treatment for males between 12 and 17 years of age. For more information about White River Academy’s programs or the admissions process, please call 866-520-0905.

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