Alexithymia is a Greek word with two parts: lexis meaning ‘word’ and thumos meaning ‘soul/heart/mind’. Put together, alexithymia is the clinical term used to describe the inability to recognise emotions and their nuances. People diagnosed with alexithymia have a limited understanding of the own self-experience and also that of others.
Emotions are intricate, textured and nuanced. There is a range of emotions which some individuals find difficult to articulate. For example, ‘hunger’, ‘tiredness’, ‘boredom’, ‘anxiety’ and ‘frustration’ may all be understood to look and feel like ‘anger’.
Alexithymia is one of the many presenting symptoms of autism. People suffering from depression also present alexithymia, and so do schizophrenics.
When was alexithymia discovered?
The term was first mentioned in 1972 as a psychological construct, and was viewed as a deficit in emotional awareness. [Scientific America; 2014] Researchers found that approximately 8% of males and 2% of females have alexithymia which presents itself in “mild, moderate and severe intensities”. [ibid]
Researchers also found that alexithymia has two dimensions: cognitive and affective.
The cognitive dimension (thinking dimension) indicates the difficulty in some individuals in identifying, interpreting and verbalising their feelings. The affective dimension (experiencing dimension), on the other hand, indicates the difficulty in some individuals in expressing, imagining and reacting to either their own or other people’s emotions.
How do we help individuals with alexithymia?
The best way to help such individuals is to love them… patiently. Of course love is the encompassing umbrella to any offers of assistance. But love manifests in different ways as do all emotions: Love can scold, beat, shame and mock. These are the negative manifestations of love and do not help individuals with alexithymia.
Living with alexithymia already compounds the difficulties of daily life for individuals on the spectrum. Consider expanding your emotional vocabulary to help the person with alexithymia. “I’m feeling frustrated because I can’t get the computer to work. What about you?” or “I’m tired, let’s get a takeaway.” Ask “You seem angry. Is something bothering you?” to help the person you love categorise or label how they are feeling. “You look anxious. Is it because of the exams coming up?” will help someone focus on why they feel a certain way at a certain time. Likewise, “You seem happy, was the ice-cream yummy?” is another way to give positive feelings associated with a stimulus a name.
Talking about your own emotions can sometimes help encourage those with alexithymia to express theirs. “Can I tell you how I feel about the situation?” – when framed this way, the speaker is also asking permission to talk about how they feel. Take your cue from the person you’re asking. Don’t forget that autistics are often overwhelmed by their own emotions which they find hard to express. Some individuals on the spectrum may be encouraged to express themselves if you give them the space and time to, others may clam up further. No matter what, be patient – always.
Thankfully, alexithymia can be treated. There are many ways to help yourself and those who you love. I’ll just list three.
A good way is to encourage your loved one to keep a journal. When I was in middle school, and often frustrated, and had difficulty in expressing myself beyond always being angry, a teacher taught me how to express my feelings by journaling them. She gave me a thesaurus to help me find other words to ‘anger’ which includes ‘anxious’, ‘frustration’ and ‘fearful. In this way, I increased my range of words to use which helped me in expressing myself better. In another, I learnt to ask myself why I was feeling the way I was; I learnt to navigate my emotions. This led to self-awareness and self-experience.
Another way is to read books. Authors are compelled to find other words to describe emotions and feelings in their novels. Affiliating with a character in a book can often help us deal with our own experiences and emotions. Research has shown that reading can help us better understand ‘Theory of Mind’ [discussion to come in another post], engage in expressive language and develop linguistic skills to describe a story and personal narratives.
Immersing oneself in the expressive arts is another great way to cope with alexithymia. Acting, dancing and music are all different forms of the expressive arts which can help us express ourselves beyond words. Sign up for these courses in your communities. It’s also a great way to meet people.
Remember that emotions are abstract constructs and can be very difficult to describe in their layered nuances and textures. But ‘anger’, ‘happiness’, ‘desperation’, and ‘love’ are all universal emotions that everyone feels.
The Scream by Edward Munch, 1893. Image courtesy of Edward Munch Organisation