Richard G. Petty, MD


There is an important psychological symptom that can cause a great deal of distress, particularly in relationships. It is called alexithymia.

The Harvard psychiatrist Peter Sifneos originally coined the term in 1972 to describe people who had extreme difficulty in emotional cognition. The word “alexithymia” literally means “no words for mood.” People with this problem lacked the ability to understanding, processing or describing their feelings verbally. As a result, most people who have the problem are largely unaware of their own feelings or what they signify. As a result they only rarely talk about their emotions or their emotional preferences, and they are largely unable to use their feelings or imagination to focus and fuel their drives and motivations.

People with alexithymia seem unable to fantasize and many report multiple somatic symptoms. However, alexithymia is also associated with a number of other complaints, such as hypertension, irritable bowel syndrome, substance use disorders, and some anxiety disorders. Their speech is often concrete, mundane and closely tied to external events. So they will describe physical symptoms rather than emotions, and don’t understand that their bodily sensations are signals of emotional distress.

Alexithymia lies on spectrum: regular readers will remember some of our discussions about categorical and dimensional diagnoses. For some people it is little more than an inability to get in touch with their emotions. But at the other end of the spectrum are a number of illnesses in which alexithymia may occur, including schizoid personality disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, anorexia nervosa or Asperger’s syndrome. It is also much more common in victims of trauma.

Much has been written about alexithymia: a literature search earlier today generated over 8,500 publications.

It is still not clear what causes alexithymia. But this much is clear: in some people, there is a strong inborn predisposition to developing it, while in others it can develop in response to life events such as being raised in a low socioeconomic group with little social stimulation, trauma or chronic stress. For this reason we often talk about primary and secondary alexithymia.

Some neuropsychological studies have indicated that alexithymia may be due to a disturbance to the right hemisphere of the brain, which usually plays a predominant role in processing emotions. Other studies show evidence that there may be a deficit in the transmission of information between the hemispheres of the brain, with emotional information from the right hemisphere not being properly transferred to the language regions in the left hemisphere. Other studies have suggested that alexithymia may be related to a dysfunction of the anterior cingulate cortex a region of the brain involved in the control of attention, empathy, emotion and the anticipation of rewards.

Alexithymia can have some serious consequences. Apart from making relationships very difficult, it is more common in people who have near-fatal asthma attacks or have poor diabetic control. People with a history of alcohol abuse who have alexithymia are more likely to relapse. Alexithymia may predispose people to developing the insulin resistance syndrome.

As you can see, alexithymia can be dangerous: we have to have words for our feelings, or the feelings will express themselves though our bodies. It can predispose us to just about every stress-related illness, and even some illnesses that we don’t normally think of as stress-related. Since alexithymia is all about an ability to express emotions, it can be thought of as a social or informational disease. If we cannot inform others about our wants and needs, and if our minds cannot send us signals to say that something is going wrong, there could be a catastrophe lying in wait for us.

People with extreme forms of alexithymia can be very difficult to help using conventional medicine.

However, many people have minor degrees of alexithymia, and these can be helped by therapies designed to help them express emotions:

  1. First is to become aware of the problem: I’ve had good success with asking people to keep an emotions “log book:” if they are having odd symptoms, how good are they about having appropriate emotions? I ask them to keep a note of their emotions in response to normal interactions with other people, or while watching television or a movie. If the person feels nothing while watching something really emotional, that can help him or her see that there is a problem. Simply learning to be more expressive can help mild cases: there are an array of forms of psychotherapy that can help.
  2. In mild cases, we have had some good results with flower essences. There’s not a shred of scientific proof that they help, but clinically they often do. The same goes for two other helpful approaches:
  3. Homeopathy: there are over a dozen remedies that may help
  4. Tapping therapies

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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