“How are you?” – “Oh, that’s a tough one!”

Second-year Psychology students participating in the University Honours College follow a mini-course on Blogging Science (within the Thematic Meetings course), in which they learn to communicate science to the general public, by means of informing, giving an opinion, and relating issues in science to issues in society. This year a selection of these written blog posts is published on Mindwise. Today’s post is by Lea Benarey-Meisel.

 

It is not too difficult to imagine how it would be like to be blind. We can close our eyes and shut off the continuous flow of information we gain through our vision. Even though we would have more difficulty eliminating all sounds in our environment, including the sounds we make for example whilst swallowing or breathing, imagining to be deaf is still possible.

The role of emotions

Now try imagining the following: What would it be like to be unable to recognize and process emotions? How would it feel to not feel anxious, or excited, or frustrated? How would it be if we did not know how to communicate to our friend that we feel blue or to our partner that we are not only glad but actually elated to see him or her?

If you are like me, answering these questions is very hard, almost impossible. Emotions play a major role in most situations of our lives, allow us to understand our social environment and ourselves better. Furthermore, most people are able to tell with sufficient accuracy whether someone is enthusiastic, excited or thrilled. Most people also understand that these emotions are similar, yet they increase in magnitude.

We often take our emotions for granted and might even sometimes wish we did not feel them at all, especially the negative emotions – sadness, anger, disappointment, anxiety.

Alexithymia

But there is a fraction of our population, which is impaired in these skills we take for granted. The personality trait alexithymia leads individuals to have difficulty reading, understanding and regulating emotions. However, despite the impaired ability to put emotions into words, one may be able to feel emotions . In other words, the individual experiences a sort of ‘emotional half-blindness’. With a prevalence of around 10 %, alexithymia is equally common among men and women.

Generally, it can be differentiated between two forms of alexithymia . In Type 1, emotions are typically not experienced at all, whereas in Type 2, the difficulty lies in the verbal expression of emotions. Often, alexithymic individuals lack empathy, intuition and imagination to some degree and might experience relational issues . Alexithymia often co-occurs with disorders such as Autistic Spectrum Disorders , but also Anorexia Nervosa , Major Depressive Disorder  and substance abuse. However, it is important to remember, that individuals differ in the degree to which they have alexithymia and that this extent may vary between situations and over the lifespan. The causes of the individual differences remain widely unknown, but dysfunction of the right part of the brain, which is involved in emotional processing might be a source of alexithymia . Additionally, the corpus callosum , which connects the two hemispheres of the brain, and the anterior cingulate cortex may play a role . Altogether, the mystery around alexithymia remains hazy.

Even though the personality trait is not uncommon, many people have never heard of it or thought that it would exist. Or have you? So, the next time you talk to someone, who has difficulty answering the simple question of ‘how are you?’, keep in mind that they might not internally know the answer, like you do. Be patient and understanding, provide an environment in which the person feels accepted and is eager to find out how to feel, understand and express their emotions.

Note: Image by Taylor Herring, licensed by CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

References

1 Sifneos, P. E. (1967). Clinical Observations on some patients suffering from a variety of psychosomatic diseases. Acta Medicina Psychosomatica, 7, 1-10.

2 Fukunishi, I., Berger, D., Wogan, J., & Kuboki, T. (1999). Alexithymic traits as predictors of difficulties with adjustment in an outpatient cohort of expatriates in Tokyo. Psychological reports, 85, 67–77.

3 Vanheule, S., Desmet, M., Meganck, R. & Bogaerts, S. (2007). Alexithymia and interpersonal problems. Journal of clinical psychology, 63, 109–17.

4 Hill, E., Berthoz, S. & Frith, U. (2004). Brief report: cognitive processing of own emotions in individuals with autistic spectrum disorder and in their relatives. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34, 229–235.

5 Cochrane, C. E., Brewerton, T. D., Wilson, D. B. & Hodges, E. L. (1993). Alexithymia in the eating disorders. The International journal of eating disorders, 14, 219–22.

6 Honkalampi, K., Hintikka, J., Laukkanen, E., Lehtonen, J. & Viinamäki, H. (2001). Alexithymia and depression: a prospective study of patients with major depressive disorder. Psychosomatics, 42, 229–34.

7 Taylor, G. J., Parker, J. D. & Bagby, R. M. (1990). A preliminary investigation of alexithymia in men with psychoactive substance dependence. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 147, 1228–30.

8 Jessimer, M. & Markham, R. (1997). Alexithymia: a right hemisphere dysfunction specific to recognition of certain facial expressions? Brain and Cognition, 34, 246–58.

9 Hoppe, K. D. & Bogen, J. E. (1977). Alexithymia in twelve commissurotomized patients. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 28, 148–55.

10 Lane, R. D., Ahern, G. L., Schwartz, G. E. & Kaszniak, A. W. (1997). Is alexithymia the emotional equivalent of blindsight? Biol. Psychiatry, 42, 834–44.

Lea Benarey is a German second year psychology student at the RUG. Her main interests lie in the fields of developmental psychology and neuropsychology. She is fascinated about the way people with mental and physical problems experience everyday life. Currently, her main passion lies in the domain of deaf communication.


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