Processing and managing emotions is an essential part of a successful treatment plan that includes talk therapy. For some people, though, “How do you feel?” is an impossible question to answer. This inability to express emotions and put feelings into words, which can lead to depression, is known as Alexithymia.
The term, which was first coined by psychiatrist Peter Sifneos in the 1970’s, comes from the Greek language (a - lack, lexis - word, thymos- word/motion). Sifneos used the term to describe his patients who experienced great difficulty in expressing their emotions.
Psychologists have recently studied the negative mental health effects caused by Alexithymia, with many correlating this personality trait to substance abuse and depression. The condition is sometimes referred to as emotional blindness.
Individuals with Alexithymia have a diminished ability to not only identify their own emotions, but also struggle to define and explain their feelings. Those with Alexithymia also have a tendency to externalize both their experiences and their feelings.
Other signs may include:
- Difficulty in understanding what causes feelings
- A style of thinking that can be described as “constricted”
- Tentative or detached connections to those in their circles
- Struggling to recognize facial cues in others
The condition has been associated with a myriad of psychological disorders including:
Individuals with Alexithymia may find themselves turning to drugs or alcohol to relieve anxiety and/or depression.
Relationship With Substance Addiction
When compared to non-addicted individuals, Alexithymia is much more common amongst people with substance abuse disorders. In fact, research on the condition suggests that Alexithymia can actually play a large role as a contributing factor in substance dependence and addiction.
For comparison, rates of Alexithymia are estimated to be between six and 10 percent but have been reported to be as high as 78 percent amongst those with alcohol-use disorders. The numbers are just as telling when it comes to illicit drug use disorders (between 42 and 50 percent).
Alexithymia is commonly reported in drug-treatment program participants and is described as being a challenge to overcome.
Stress Response and Depression
Alexithemic characteristics have been linked by researchers to an elevated stress response. Consequently, those suffering from emotional blindness may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope.
While Alexithymia is associated with substance abuse, it is still unknown if the associated elevated psychological stress in individuals with the condition directly leads to substance abuse itself.
Alexithymia’s role in the development of a substance abuse disorder may in fact be less about the stress itself and more related to a reduced ability to regulate that stress due to poorer emotional intelligence, which alone has been shown to be a predictor of alcohol and substance abuse.
The Importance of Diagnosis
Undiagnosed, Alexithymia can reduce the benefits and effectiveness of mental health treatments. Thus, emotional awareness must be taught for therapy itself to be effective.
Renewed interest in the condition may lead to specific therapeutic approaches aimed at those with Alexithymia in order to help them gain greater awareness of their emotions.