The Curious Case of No Feelings

Did you know that not everyone has feelings?

To be more exact, some people have difficulty in experiencing, expressing, and describing their emotional responses. This is the definition of Alexithymia.

Alexithymia is a psychiatric term created by Dr. Peter Sifneos in the 1970’s while he was treating patients with psychosomatic illnesses.(1) Psychosomatic illnesses are physical disorders that are caused by or notably influenced by emotional factors. The term Alexithymia is derived from Greek; ‘a’ for lack, ‘lexis’ for word, and ‘thymos’ for emotion, meaning lack of words for emotions. Dr. Sifneos noticed in his work that NOT all his patients were able to find the appropriate words for what they were feeling, and often this lack of expression resulted in people seeking treatment for medical issues instead of emotional or psychiatric issues.(1)

It is estimated that 10% of the population suffer Alexithymia (~8% men ~2% women).(2) Sufferers have difficulty relating to others as they are unable to express their feelings.  They lack empathy with their partners and often appear to be stoic and unfeeling people. They come across as unemotional people.

Research shows that individuals with Alexithymia, in fact, DO experience emotions, because they can describe the physiological aspects of their emotions.(1) They will report sweaty palms or faster heartbeats, but they cannot tell you what emotions these sensations correspond to. They cannot identify if the racing heart is from excitement or anxiety. They just know they are feeling something. These feelings therefore, tend to manifest in physical form, as it is possible for sufferers of Alexithymia to identify them this way. Instead of seeking mental help, early and undiagnosed sufferers will seek medical help because, for example, they have constant stomach pains and cannot find a cause for it. 

Upon investigation, the treater will often uncover information that alludes to some emotional difficulty in the person’s life. The person’s lack of words and inability to express these issues, leads to the manifestations in the body. Where there are no words for Emotions, the Emotions find another system from which to be expressed. Be it headaches, nausea, excessive fatigue, severe pain in various parts of the body or even changes in menstruation,

Emotions always find a way to express themselves.

In a recent study, it was shown that Alexithymia and Emotional Intelligence (EQ) have strong negative correlations.(3)  Therefore, you can conclude that individuals who suffer from Alexithymia tend to have lower EQ. Furthermore, their inability to identify their own emotions means they cannot identify emotions correctly in others. They cannot utilize their emotions for understanding problems and therefore have difficulty with problem solving. They lack empathy and relating to others, and as a result, are unable to mitigate relationship problems successfully. 

It has been noted that increasing a person’s emotional vocabulary increases their EQ.(2) If increasing EQ by vocabulary building is possible, it is possible to use this to help treat Alexithymia. Tools such as journaling, expressive arts, novel reading and psychotherapy can all help in expanding a person’s emotional vocabulary thus improving their overall ability to express and understand feelings.(2)

If you work with or live with a person who suffers Alexithymia, it can be a frustrating experience. Talking to a person who barely registers a smirk when you are in a fit of passion can be disconcerting. Or, trying to gauge if your words are hurtful to someone yet are met with a poker face in response, can leave you not knowing what direction to take the conversation in.

Alexithymics often shrug and say everything is “fine.” But, imagine what it is like for them. Not knowing what Emotions you are experiencing is like only being able to watch television in black and white where everyone only speaks in monotone. Life is missing its color, its depth, and its complexity for them.

If you love or care about someone with this issue, it does not mean there is no hope. Be patient and work together to find ways to learn to express yourselves so you both understand each other. Employ some of the available tools and seek professional help if necessary.


References & Works Cited

1. Frankel, Freddy, et al. Peter Emanuel Sifneos . Harvard Gazette. [Online] May 13, 2010. [Cited: May 12, 2017.]

2. Serani, Deborah. Scientific American. The Emotional Blindness of Alexithymia. [Online] April 14, 2014. [Cited: May 12, 2017.]

3. The relationship between emotional intelligence and alexithymia. Parker, James D.A., Taylor, Graeme J. and Bagby, R. Michael. 1, s.l. : Elsevier Science Ltd., January 2001, ScienceDirect, Vol. 30, pp. 107 - 115.

4. Allan, Patrick. Increase Your Emotional Intelligence by Expanding Your Vocabulary. Lifehacker. [Online] February 18, 2015. [Cited: May 12, 2017.]