Sunday, October 16, 2011

Alexithymia

The word alexithymia originates from the combination of three ancient Greek terms:

a: lack of
lexis: word
thymos: emotions

and literally translates to having no words for emotions.  It is a clinical term that describes the phenomenon of being unable to express one's emotions verbally.  Someone who is alexithymic typically has difficulty recognizing his or her emotions on a conscious level; because he does not recognize his emotions, he is unable to communicate how he feels to others.  When asked how he feels about something, a person with alexithymia will often describe what he thinks or perhaps how he might respond behaviorally to the situation in question.  Alexithymics often complain of chronic pain, gastrointenstinal problems (e.g., reflux, ulcers, indigestion, etc.), or frequent headaches for which no medical cause can be identified.  When a person cannot recognize or express his emotions it becomes impossible to discharge (or process) these feelings in any meaningful way.  Experts on the subject speculate that alexithymics' somatic complaints stem from unacknowledged and unprocessed emotions that have accumulated over time. 

Dr. Reny Muller (http://homepages.spa.umn.edu/~larry/CLASS/NOTHING/READINGS/NoStorytoTell.pdf) suggests that the inability on the part of an alexithymic to express or process the emotions he experiences physiologically (i.e., the body sensations that always accompany any emotional experience) prevents him from developing a stable identity.  "Who we know ourselves to be depends heavily on the story we tell ourselves about who we are," he explains.  No words = No story = No identity. 

There really is no widespread agreement on how best to treat alexithymia.  Essentially, treatment requires teaching someone how to feel.  My personal approach is to start with body sensations.  I give patients a list of body sensations that are commonly associated with various emotions.  I ask them to spend time each day simply noticing and writing down any sensations they experience in their bodies.  Over time, I help them start to identify and name the emotion that describes a given set of body sensations. 

If you think you or someone you know might be alexithymic, you can go online and complete a short screening questionnaire: http://www.alexithymia.us/test-alex.html

4 comments:

  1. I have a hard time showing excitement in happy events. I'll smile or laugh but my fiance says my face is blank. I never remember being excited about anything in my life. High school graduation, college graduation, starting my career, marital engagement, planning the wedding, nothing. Not even birthday parties or Christmas as a child. I'm a very logic person with a great understanding of concrete facts, probabilities, percentages, and numbers. I have a good sense of right and wrong just not an emotional responce to back it up. I'm very conservative financial and politically and can definitely feel stress. I also have had gastrointestinal pains for as long as I can remember (I read something above about that).

    Could I be suffering from this and not no it? Or am I searching for reasoning and logic about something I have control over again?

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  2. Yep, I think you could be Alexithymic. I diagnosed myself as having this condition after reading a passage from Daniel Goleman's book, Emotional Intelligence. 'A Man Without Feelings' on page 51 described me fairly accurately. It's the first time I had heard of Alexithymia. That was back around 2003. I have many of the same lack of emotional responses as you in the same types of situations, and have had similar physical episodes since I was 14. Alexithymia is a very real challenge that isn't well known, and that some non-Alexithymics don't understand or believe in.

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  3. I think like I have alexithymia and I don't know how to fix it...any tips to idk, like getting "better"?

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