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Alexithymia, also known as emotional blindness, is a personality feature in which a person has difficulty experiencing, identifying, understanding, and expressing their emotions. This can be influenced by several factors including genetics, past experiences, and certain medical conditions. About 10 to 13 percent of the population has this trait, with more men than women experiencing it.

The late psychiatrist Peter Sifneos, a professor at Harvard, introduced this term in 1972, which means no words for emotions. A person with alexithymia has a hard time processing their own emotions, which affects the way they respond to other people’s emotions, with relationships suffering as a result. Alexithymia is not a mental health disorder, and there is no clinical diagnosis. However, it does appear in conjunction with conditions including autism spectrum disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress, as well as neurologic problems such as brain injury.

The Trait of Alexithymia

A person with alexithymia may have difficulty processing and describing how they feel. They are also not in touch with physical sensations that accompany emotions, such as a tight chest when angry. They may appear humorless, distant, empathetic, and rigid. Their limited emotional vocabulary stifles their ability to communicate their feelings with others.

Do genetics play a role in alexithymia?

There is some evidence suggesting that alexithymia can run in families. A study on identical and fraternal twins showed that there may be a genetic predisposition for this trait. One study found a higher prevalence in first-degree relatives of those with alexithymia.

Can a person’s environment influence alexithymia?

Research on twins also shows that a person’s environment can affect the development of alexithymia. People who have suffered childhood trauma or abuse may have difficulty processing their emotions. In addition, people with brain injury also show higher rates of alexithymia as well as overall mental distress and lower levels of coping.

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How to Address Alexithymia

Self-care can help a person cope with alexithymia. Mindfulness, for one, has a positive influence on this trait; to be mindful, one must be aware and observe how they feel, this in turn can help a person learn to describe how they feel. Also, creative practices like journaling, reading fiction, and drawing can help a person get in touch with their emotions.

Is there a way to measure this trait?

There are a few assessment tools including the Toronto Alexithymia Scale and the Bermond-Vorst Alexithymia Questionnaire, which are commonly used by clinicians. Because such tools rely on self-reports, it is best to use them in tandem with other assessments and clinical observations.

Can therapy help a person with alexithymia?

Therapies that help a person become more aware of their emotions can be useful. Cognitive behavioral therapy and psychodynamic therapy have been studied and are shown to be effective for alexithymia.

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