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About Alexithymia

Alexithymia Syndrome
Loosely speaking, Alexithymia is the inability to identify or express emotions. The term itself can be broken down literally to lack of words for emotions: A (lack) Lexis (word) Thymos (emotion). 

Alexithymics often have trouble verbalising, and even recognising their emotions. The term is becoming more well known in recent years, thanks to more interest in literature. One of the most wellknown books referring to Alexithymia early on was The Handbook Of Emotional Intelligence by Reuven BarOn.

While it is not a clinical condition, it still can have a severe impact on a persons life, effecting how they relate to others, how they form relationships and understand themselves. It has been described as a 'personality trait' and mostly fits the bill of a syndrome (cluster of traits).

How can you tell if you have Alexithymia?
Because Alexithymia isn't a clinical condition, most people will have to self assess. If  the impact of this syndrome effects one enough to cause concern, then seeking out professionals like Psychiatrists for further help with identifying the causes (however many do not seem educated in this syndrome).

Some lists of symptoms include:

  • Difficulty talking about your emotions,
  • Percieved by others as excessively logical, or unsentimental without being unfriendly,
  • Perplexed by others' emotional reactions,
  • Give pedantic, long-winded answers to practical questions,
  • Are often asked to give more details to emotional questions when you think you've given enough,
  • Make personal decisions based on principles rather than feelings,
  • Occassionally suffer inexplicatble physiological disturbances (Palpitations, stomach ache, hot flushes etc)

You can take online tests, such as the 37 question test at oaq.blogspot.co.uk 

Primary/Secondary Alexithymia
The debate of nature/nurture, as always, is largely argued with this condition.
There are two main categories; Primary and Secondary Alexithymia.
Primary referring to Alexithymia that is a result of Nature; it is organic, naturally occuring and enduring.
Secondary refers to Nurture; the developement of Alexithymia in reaction to something (usually emotional trauma, or a brain injury).

Environrments in childhood could have factors that stunt emotional growth and thus cause alexithymic traits. For many it may be naturally how they're wired; it is highly common in people on the Autistic Spectrum for example (50-85% co-morbidity).

Psychological or Neurological?

This question is often asked of psychiatric syndromes, usually with the aim of attributing responsibility or identifying suitable therapies. There is evidence that alexithymia can be either neurogenic (caused by biological abnormalities) or psychogenic (caused by upbringing or psychological trauma).

To simplify the complex condition, one could assume that if Alexithymia occurs suddenly, such as a result from a head injury, it is most likely neurological. Naturally occuring Alexithymia, although hard to pinpoint could be neurological, as a result of developmental problems.

Alexithymia as a result of emotionally repressive, or abusive upbringings, or after psychological trauma, are likely to be  psychological in nature.

Due to its complex nature, it is rare for the cause to be so readily identifiable. There is no recognised distinction between neurological and psychological alexithymia, thus no clinical test to ascertain the cause. It is entirely likely that the majority of Alexithymics have a mixture of neurological and psychological causes, in reality.

Furthermore, the brain is continually changing and developing in response to its environment. What could have started out as a psychological cause, could alter the way the brains wiring. Likewise, what may have started out as a developmental defect could then trigger psychological defences and perpetuate symptoms.

Here is an interesting quote from a site no longer in use on the subject of how the cause of Alexithymia may be worthy of note once we know more about the condition;

If the neural structures and pathways linking different aspects of emotion processing have sustained damage by injury or atrophy, the alexithymia may be completely irreversible and the focus should be on learning new compensatory coping strategies. However, if the structures and pathways are still intact but underused (perhaps the neural activity is being inhibited by other processes), then there is a greater prospect of reducing the alexithymia by psychotherapeutic intervention. -Hal


Is there a cure?

This wholly depends on the cause of the Alexithymia.

For those with Secondary Alexithymia, it may be possible to alleviate or reverse the symptoms by treating the cause. Seeking therapy for the trauma that caused it could see that the Alexithymia is a defense mechanism against that unresolved problem.

For people with Primary Alexithymia, a cure is rather unlikely, as this is down to how their brain is wired, or due to destruction of normal pathways that would allow emotional recognition. For primary Alexithymia, it may be best to focus on compensating for the traits that cause the most trouble.
However, I strongly believe nature/nuture both influence any situation, so it may be possible to use psychological methods to help alleviate and cure some aspects of it even for Primary Alex's. 

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