Psychology: what is alexithymia?

by Marc Wilson / 10 November, 2012
Emotional understanding is good for our own peace of mind and for those around us.
What is alexithymia?

Despite of our somewhat tightly buttoned and emotionally undemonstrative national character, emotions matter here as everywhere. Being able to identify the emotions you’re experiencing and to describe them to others and knowing how to regulate what you’re feeling are a big part of the foundation for psychological well-being. Some of us are better at this than others, and at the extreme end of the scale, people who find this very hard may be described as alexithymic. As a flash-sounding label, alexithymia has been around since the 1970s, and is growing into a topic of increasing interest at a time when ideas like emotional intelligence, popularised in the 1990s by Daniel Goleman, are a staple of the self-help industry.

In New Zealand and elsewhere, alexithymia – difficulties processing, identifying and describing one’s emotions – can be connected to a lot of negative stuff. For example, research by PhD student Jessica Garisch and me found that school kids who have the most difficulty with emotional understanding tend to take traumatic experiences such as being bullied hardest. The more difficulties like this an individual experiences, the more likely they are to engage in “experientially avoidant” coping behaviours – for instance, drinking excessively, substance abuse, self-injury and engaging in emotionally or physically risky behaviour such as promiscuous sex or driving dangerously.

Alexithymia tends to occur with other psychological issues. It’s very common among people displaying autism spectrum disorders, anxiety and depression. But that’s a circular way of trying to answer the question of where alexithymia comes from – it’s a not-so-ideal thing that’s associated with other not-so-ideal things. Let me speculate. Emotional understanding, like a lot of our skills, can come from what we learn in childhood. At Victoria University, research has looked at the role of parents in influencing and developing children’s cognitive and social understanding, and particularly how parent-child conversation affects emotional understanding – which in turn is fundamental for managing relationships.

Karen Salmon and colleagues have shown that training parents to engage in emotion-rich interaction with their children has numerous spin-offs for children’s memory, the development of their ability to relate to others and, of course, the understanding and articulation of their own emotions. But I also vividly recall realising when one of my children started talking about penguins, a subject we’d never discussed, that I wasn’t the only influence in my children’s lives. Schools, in particular teachers, are vital not just for imparting reading, writing and arithmetic skills, but also for exposing kids to the “hidden” curriculum, of which emotional competence is a part. School is also a common setting for experiences like bullying, potentially laying the groundwork for difficulties.

In their book Warming the Emotional Climate of the Primary Classroom, Massey University’s Ian Evans and Shane Harvey point out that understanding your own emotional experience is also a prerequisite for understanding and facilitating other people’s. The most emotionally competent teachers tend to promote a classroom environment in which their students can develop their own emotional competence. Evans and Harvey not only make a compelling argument for the importance of an emotionally warm classroom environment, but also show – with actual data – that when teachers are trained to be aware of the emotional climate and to reflect on their own emotional experience, and are given some tools for dealing with the emotional pitfalls, they and their students have a better time. Students are more co-operative, there is less bullying and victimisation and they feel better. Bottom line – emotions matter, and when we button them down we’re doing ourselves and those around us a disservice.
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