Today, you’ll learn all about alexithymia.
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What Is Alexithymia?
Alexithymia is a cognitive and an affective deficit in the way some individuals recognize and communicate emotional states (their own and others’).
The construct of alexithymia was developed in 1972 by Peter Sifneos, a psychiatrist and professor emeritus of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
The word alexithymia is rooted in Greek, meaning ‘‘no words for emotion’’ (a = lack, lexis = word, thy-mos = mood or emotion).
Alexithymic individuals may have an uncomfortable sense of something changing inside their body, such as an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, butterflies in the stomach, or blushing.
The alexithymic may misread those physical expressions of emotion as a physical illness or issue. For example, they may misread the racing heart sensation they feel when afraid, as a faulty valve, or the upset stomach sensation they feel when anxious as appendicitis.
However, when asked what they’re feeling, the alexithymic will have no words to offer and are often at a loss when trying to picture what stimulated the mood.
Although there is no formal diagnosis for alexithymia, several scales can help to identify its signs.
The following questions represent common signs of alexithymia.
#1. Do you find it difficult to identify feelings and emotions?
#2. Do you have a problem distinguishing between emotions and bodily sensations that relate to those emotions and often have inexplicable bodily ailments?
#3. Do you find it difficult to communicate feelings to others?
#4. Do you struggle to recognize and respond to emotions in others, including tone of voice and facial expressions?
#5. Do you have a lack of imagination and fantasies about personal projects or wishes?
#6. Do you have a logical thinking style that does not account for emotions, including relying on principles to guide your behavior rather than gut feelings?
#7. Do you find yourself behaving less altruistically than others?
#8. Do other people often find you rigid and humorless?
We will not sell your information. All results are kept confidential.
This quiz is for informational purposes only. It is not meant as a diagnostic or assessment tool.
The questions above represent common signs of alexithymia. If you answered yes to most of these questions, then alexithymia may be a problem for you.
The construct of alexithymia includes the following four main features:
(1) difficulty identifying and describing feelings,
(2) difficulty distinguishing between feelings and the physical sensations of emotional arousal,
(3) limited imaginative processes, and
(4) an externally-oriented thinking style (Taylor, Bagby and Parker 1997).
Related: Top 13 Alexithymia Quotes That Will Make You Feel Seen
Two Types Of Alexithymia
Research identified two types of alexithymia: primary and secondary alexithymia.
1. Primary Alexithymia
Primary alexithymia refers to a permanent condition that seems alter very little over time or with changing circumstances.
This form of alexithymia is due to neurological defects or defenses that has radically altered normal neuronal functions.
2. Secondary Alexithymia
Secondary alexithymia is usually caused by an emotional trauma and is often a temporary defense against further trauma.
This form of alexithymia can disappear after the evoking stressful situation has changed.
Causes of Alexithymia
1. Biogenic alexithymia
Biogenic alexithymia results from physical abnormalities in brain structure.
These abnormalities may be genetic or could also be caused by
(1) brain injury,
(2) lack of oxygen to the brain during birth, or
(3) the introduction of toxins.
2. Psychogenic alexithymia
Psychogenic alexithymia could be caused by
(1) emotional trauma (e.g. sexual abuse, neglect, witnessing or experiencing violence, being subject to the physical pain associated with injuries, or chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, or diabetes),
(2) developmental delay, or
(3) cultural and parental conditioning.
How To Cope With Alexithymia? Top 5 Alexithymia Exercises
#1. Acknowledge Alexithymia – Don’t Ignore It
If you suspect you may have alexithymia, take time to read about it.
Most literature on emotional intelligence tends to cover this topic.
This will guide you toward self-help techniques that address aspects of emotional awareness you struggle with.
#2. Accept yourself
Learning more about alexithymia will show that you don’t have an inadequate personality, but that you are different and may possess valuable qualities as part of that difference.
Common qualities in alexithymic individuals include: ability to speak one’s mind, noticing detail, exceptional memory for certain facts, increased perseverance in areas of interest, etc (Attwood and Gray 1999).
Related: How To Be Gentle With Yourself? Top 5 Ways To Practice Self-Compassion
#3. Practice Identifying Emotions
Practice identifying bodily sensations as they arise, such as racing heart, blushing, breathlessness, feeling faint, body-tension, goose-bumps, butterflies or pain in the stomach.
These bodily sensations are usually triggered by a certain emotion.
For example, if your heart starts beating fast, consider that you may be feeling afraid or anxious.
You may be able to make a connection between the bodily sensation and current life-events or circumstances that may have elicited the reaction in your body.
Moreover, recognizing these bodily sensations as signs of emotions rather than physical illnesses will save you unnecessary trips to the doctor due to misinterpretation of body states.
Related: Top 19 Emotional Intelligence Activities (To Improve Low Emotional Intelligence)
#4. Learn Healthy Coping Skills
To cope with these bodily sensations, try using different techniques to reduce their effects, such as relaxing and resting or practicing self-comforting activities like taking a bath, or listening to soothing music.
Download the list of coping skills HERE.
#5. Practice ‘Emotional Etiquette’
It may be beneficial to learn general responses even if you don’t understand the fuller complexity of others’ feelings and can only detect broad categories such ‘happy’ or ‘sad’.
These responses may sound like, ‘That must be awful,’ or, ‘You must be happy about that.’
Another emotional etiquette technique is giving compliments.
Alexithymic individuals can be too direct and honest, which to a non-alexithymic person can seem deliberately rude.
It can be helpful to give a compliment, especially before offering a blunt observation.
For example, instead of saying, ‘Your answer is incorrect,’ try saying, ‘I can see you’ve put a lot of effort into this. But this answer is incorrect. I know you’ll do better next time.’
Related: How To Become A Stronger Empath? Top 20 Actionable Empathy Exercises to Become More Empathetic
Pro Tip: Seek Professional Help
Emotion-naming requires time before identifying bodily sensations and finding the terminological ‘match’.
The process needs to be repeated many times over before the ability to identify and name emotions becomes fluent.
Therapy can give you the feedback you need to identify and name emotions.
Psychologist Locator and the National Register are two websites for locating psychologists in the USA.
Online therapy is also an option. It can be much more affordable than in-person therapy, but can be equally effective. (source)
I recommend Online-Therapy.com for affordable online therapy.
(Disclaimer: This is an affiliate link, which means I receive a commission at no extra cost to you if you choose to use this link. You will get 20% off your first month)
Alexithymia FREE Resources
What is Alexithymia? (Inability to Express or Recognize Emotions) | Dr. Todd Grande
Dr. Dawn Neumann: What is Alexithymia? | Dr. Dawn Neumann
Dr. Dawn Neumann and the aspects of alexithymia | Dr. Dawn Neumann
Dr. Dawn Neumann discusses alexithymia intervention | Dr. Dawn Neumann
Interoception and alexithymia | The Neurodivergent Woman
Emotions and Alexithymia | Aspie Me
- Portions of this article were adapted from the book Emotional Processing Deficits and Happiness, © 2013 by Linden R. Timoney and Mark D. Holder. All rights reserved.
- Portions of this article were adapted from the book Emotionally Dumb, © 2009 by Jason Thompson. All rights reserved.
- Alexithymia – Wikipedia
- Alexithymia: Symptoms, diagnosis, and links with mental health (medicalnewstoday.com)
- The Emotional Blindness of Alexithymia – Scientific American Blog Network
- Frontiers | The Multifaceted Nature of Alexithymia – A Neuroscientific Perspective (frontiersin.org)
- Alexithymia and Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Complex Relationship – PMC (nih.gov)
- Alexithymia – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics
- Frontiers | A Scientometric Review of Alexithymia: Mapping Thematic and Disciplinary Shifts in Half a Century of Research (frontiersin.org)
- Four decades of research on alexithymia: moving toward clinical applications – PMC (nih.gov)