What if your most dreaded question is when someone asks you, “How does that make you feel?”
What if your go-to answer for the question is, “I don’t know”?
Because you truly don’t.
You might know it when you are feeling angry, feeling ‘good’, or ‘bad’, but you can’t explain how you feel beyond that. You might look at the emotion wheel and start feeling dizzy because there are 10 times more emotion words than you have used to describe your own feelings throughout your entire life.
How do people know what they are feeling inside, exactly?
This is what many people with alexithymia experience – an emotional blindness. Alexithymia is defined as difficulties in recognising, distinguishing and describing feelings from the bodily sensations of emotional arousal.
Here comes the problem with alexithymia: How do we begin to regulate our emotions when we don’t know that we need to?
Challenges in picking up on the different emotional states and intensities would mean that emotions might build up until they reach a distressing level before there is any awareness of their presence.
So, people with this trait could seem like they tend to jump from 0 to 100 in a split second and draw unwanted attention to themselves, leading to more stress and anxiety.
Struggles in this area also tend to be distressing and anxiety provoking because people experiencing it do not have the appropriate language to express how they feel.
It would mean they cannot “empty their chest”, or go into problem solving mode (how could anyone solve something when they don’t really understand what it is?) or to get the help they need because they have trouble articulating what they are struggling with.
Experiencing alexithymia doesn’t mean that a person can’t answer questions such as ‘what would person A most likely be feeling in scenario X?” Most people could learn to answer questions like these. But do they know how sadness or disappointment feels in their bodies as they are experiencing those emotions?
Interestingly researchers studying brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) found that by simply being able to correctly label the emotions that we are feeling, negative emotional responses can be significantly reduced when we are being exposed to negative emotion triggers.
What is more, emotional labelling produces a pattern of neural responses similar to those seen when a person engages in intentional emotional regulatory strategies taught in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), such as cognitive reappraisal.
It does not mean that we no longer fear the emotions when we are able to label it correctly but that we no longer react involuntarily to, or experience distress from, these emotions as much as we would have without being able to label our emotions.
What many of us might take for granted – recognising and naming emotions as we are experiencing them – may be a huge challenge for those with alexithymia. If this describes what you, or someone around you, is struggling with, you can get in contact with me, or a psychologist who understands the condition well, to discuss this further in session.
Do you know?
Alexithymia affects an estimated 40-50% of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
© Jasmine Loo Psychology 2019