What Are the Symptoms of Alexithymia?
The symptoms of alexithymia are based on the difficulty some people have in identifying the emotions that they’re experiencing, as well as expressing them verbally. The term was first coined in 1973 by psychiatry professor Peter Sifneos. He did so after observing this impairment in some of his patients in the psychiatric clinic of Massachusetts General Hospital.
The Spanish Society of Neurology estimates that up to 10% of the world’s population suffers from this disorder. However, it’s important to emphasize that not all people suffer to the same degree.
Types of alexithymia
Patients with symptoms of alexithymia may have them for different reasons. These reasons will determine which type of the disorder they’re suffering from, either primary or secondary:
- Primary. In these cases, there’s some type of neurological deficit that affects communication between the limbic system and the neocortex, or between the cerebral hemispheres. This may be due to hereditary causes or to the appearance of a neurological disease.
- Secondary. Secondary alexithymia, on the other hand, is the result of some type of emotional disorder. It may be due to a repeated lack of affection received during childhood. Alternatively, it may manifest itself in adults who have been subjected to traumatic situations.
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Who may suffer from alexithymia?
Professor Sifneos originally identified this characteristic in patients suffering from psychosomatic disorders. However, over the years, it has also been associated with other diseases, such as drug or medication dependence, and antisocial personality disorders.
As for physical diseases linked to the symptoms of alexithymia, we can include multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, head injuries, strokes, and brain tumors. On the other hand, disorders such as eating disorders, autism spectrum disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorders can also be to blame.
Main symptoms of alexithymia
According to Pedinielli (1992), there are four fundamental alexithymic symptoms:
- The inability to verbally express emotions or feelings
- A lack of, or limited, imagination
- A tendency to resort to action to avoid and solve conflicts
- A high level of thought directed towards specific worries
Pedinielli attributes these characteristics to problems with symbolic function, or the incapacity to express a subject’s unconscious dimensions. Because of this, these people often express their emotional state through somatization.
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Other symptoms of alexithymia
Whether due to somatic or neurological causes, people who suffer from alexithymia also show a whole series of characteristics that can define them in varying degrees:
- Lack of emotional empathy: People with alexithymia find it extremely difficult to put themselves in the place of others. By not recognizing their own emotions, it’s even more difficult for them to understand the emotions of others.
- Limited verbal communication: In general, they’re people who tend to speak very little. In addition to this, they tend to be serious and withdrawn in their interaction with others.
- Poor non-verbal communication: When it comes to communication, they’re quite rigid. They aren’t expressive and use very few body movements.
- Excess of rationality: As their emotional world is limited, they tend to be very rational and pragmatic.
- Low capacity of introspection: They’re people who don’t analyze how they feel, since they can’t identify with, nor describe, their emotions. Therefore, it’s easier for them to focus on external aspects.
- Difficulty in maintaining affective bonds: People with alexithymia show very low levels of affections, and struggle to express it to others. Their relationships are usually unfulfilling and they tend to be socially isolated.
Is there any treatment to improve the symptoms?
People with alexithymia rarely attend therapy of their own will. If they do, it’s at the insistence of those close to them, who are most aware of their communication difficulties.
These patients can benefit from therapy in different ways. For example, individual therapy based on cognitive development of emotional awareness (Lane & Schwartz, 1987) has shown good results.
Group work is also suitable for working on major symptoms. In fact, the combination of individual and group therapy appears to be the most effective way to address this disorder.
Final thoughts on alexithymia
People with symptoms of alexithymia may appear to have no feelings, but this isn’t the case. They feel fear, joy, sadness, and all other basic or secondary emotions. What happens, however, is that their way of experiencing them is different from most other people, and this can lead to conflicts in communication.
For that reason, attending psychological therapy is recommendable and necessary. They may never experience emotions in the same way as other people who don’t have this disorder, but the therapeutic approach can certainly be of great benefit to them. After all, it can help to significantly improve their quality of life and relationships.