Considering psychological health of IT workers, many sources mention depression, anxiety, burnout, and procrastination issues, which are fueled by overworking, stress, and telecommuting. While these problems are very relevant, we would like to draw attention to a problem such as alexithymia, which, according to various sources, up to 23% of the population may suffer from.
One can find many definitions of the word alexithymia, but their essence is the same: difficulties in recognizing and/or experiencing emotions. However, in practice, not everything is so simple, because there are many manifestations of alexithymia, and some of them will be difficult to associate with alexithymia for an unexperienced person.
Signs of alexithymia
First off, a few signs that suggest a person may be alexithymic:
1. They have difficulty identifying the emotions they feel or felt, describing them in conversation or writing.
Manifestations vary: the person may only experience physical manifestations of emotions, such as tension in the chest, tears in their eyes, a lump in the throat, an unreasonable desire to move suddenly, etc. They might difficulty telling another person, even a loved one, about their mood, able to only say a subjective “bad,” “normal” or “good,” or something akin to “fog,” “emptiness,” “static” – or even nothing at all. There are times when such people become aware of an emotion after the event, sometimes by a few hours, sometimes by decades. People can even confuse emotions, mistaking fear for anger, jealousy for annoyance, dissatisfaction for indifference, etc., or have trouble distinguishing one feeling from another. Sometimes alexithymics quite fully experience and identify some emotions, but have problems with others.
2. Difficulties with internal motivation and the need for external motivation – responsibility, deadlines, pressure.
Of course, this point applies to motivation for daily tasks and small projects. But at the same time it also refers to long-term motivation – what we call the “meaning of life” or its purpose. Try to answer a simple question, “What am I living for?” Some might think of family, travelling, wealth, arts, spiritual growth. Others may give more specific goals, such as creating their own startup or saving up for retirement in Hawaii. Alexithymics, on the other hand, are unlikely to find an answer to the question. Perhaps some possibilities, desires, plans will come to their mind, but with no inner response, such as inspiration or a burst of energy.
This lack of long-term internal motivation negatively affects short-term motivation and causes frustration at life.
3. Limited imagination. Fantasies, daydreams, mental representations of possible future situations, even memories of alexithymics based on logic and have no emotional “charge”.
Such people often have problems with creative pursuits – after all, it is difficult to write a story or draw a picture that “touches the soul” without emotional descriptions or ideas. Therefore, they may reach for works of art created by other authors that evoke strong emotions, such as action novels, horror movies. In addition, they often cannot form a picture of their future or a vision of a project, imagine the consequences of making a decision, and therefore constantly make decisions and create plans based on logic and knowledge, or on the experience of others.
It should be noted that not all attributes may be combined in one person, and the manifestations are very individual in everyone.
Where does it come from?
Alexithymia may be a genetic condition or caused by brain abnormalities.
Unfortunately, there are currently no 100% way to prove this for an individual case. However, if you have experienced problems with emotionality since childhood and believe that you never experienced anything as listed below, or there are people in your family who also have similar problems, this may be your case.
May come from childhood.
During infancy, children can’t yet make sense of their emotions, so they look at others in the environment and “mirror” them. For example, when a baby bumps into a bed, they are likely to look at their parents or other people in the room. If these people are worried, the child will begin worrying too; if they laugh, the child will laugh; if they don’t react at all, the child will most likely not react too.
This continues into childhood. The child absorbs the behavior of others like a sponge, including emotional reactions, and unconsciously copies them. And if, for example, it is not customary in the family to show strong emotions, the child will also learn not to react emotionally. But only outwardly.
There are other cultures is families or societies that lead to alexithymia. For example, the “men don’t cry or show weakness” attitude regularly leads to alexithymia precisely in cases of feelings of sadness, loss, helplessness, fear and shame in men. In such cases, some suppress these feelings, others transform them into anger and aggression as a “covering” feeling, and another group vents it via sports – but most people unfortunately consider these mechanisms normal. Women, too, may have similar cultural attitudes, only in the opposite direction: sometimes girls are told that they should not get angry or show irritation – which are also natural emotions.
In addition, if parents or society’s actions suppress a child’s aspirations and desires, from wanting certain breakfast dish to pursuing certain college major, while reacting negatively to the child’s attempts to defend their point of view, this can also lead to alexithymia. The more the child’s inner voice, aspirations and desires get suppressed, the more difficult it is for them to understand and distinguish them.
Alexithymia can be a consequence of traumatic events.
A traumatic event can be interpreted both as a single life event, such as a car accident or the death of a loved one, and as ongoing events, such as bullying in school or a relationship with an emotionally unstable partner.
Each trauma requires an individualized approach in psychotherapy. However, in terms of influencing alexithymia, some ways to protect the psyche from trauma (repression, denial, isolation, rationalization, projection, substitution) may involve suppressing emotions or unhealthy conversions to other emotions, like transferring sadness, fear, shame to anger, hate, aggression.
How does it affect people?
We have discussed some of the effects of alexithymia above. However, there are more effects on the life of alexithymics. The factors listed above can lead to the following consequences:
1. Difficulties in finding their way in life.
Internal motivation, purpose and meaning come from within, from the strongest and most positive feelings: inspiration, love, hope, satisfaction, belonging, etc. When these feelings are absent or misrecognized, one does not feel “resonant” with their life and their plans, desires, and possibilities. Usually if you ask such a person whether they would like to change their life, they will agree. But if you ask them how they would change it, which things will change and how, with which results, they will not know or will answer abstractly. Often such people take long-term goals in life at the insistence of their families, from friends or colleagues, social networks or life stories, or choose them logically, but don’t feel attactions towards these goals or anticipation of achieving them.
2. Lack of Interest in life
Interest in life is also a feeling that comes from other emotions: interest in things, knowledge, people, emotions of happiness, joy and inspiration, inner motivation, a conscious desire to live and act. Accordingly, without them, the interest in life is lost, living becomes empty, routine, and draining. Achievements do not make this person happy, because they don’t follow their inner goals or desires. They may try to find interest in other sources, and not all of them are useful, which brings us to point 3.
3. Addictions and Relapse
It is not uncommon for people with alexithymia to experience life as meaningless, joyless, crushing, draining. They want to feel alive and full instead of empty, harmonious instead of conflicted. This is why they often retreat into escapism, a distraction from ordinary life. The methods of such escapism can be relatively constructive – for example, sports, movies, travelling, hobbies, art, which can bring bursts of short-term positive emotions – interest, fun, inspiration. However, these methods can be based on bad habits – alcohol, smoking, etc., or indirectly harmful activities – shopping, overeating, addiction to social networks. These thing also bring short-term bursts of positive emotions, but are either harmful to physical health or specifically aimed at causing addiction.
In addition, alexithymics who quit a bad habit are more prone to relapsing. You can often hear from such person: “Yesterday everything was fine, today I suddenly snapped for no reason…”
In fact, relapse does not occur for no reason. For alexithymics, the reason is that repressed or unconscious emotions accumulate inside, felt as tension, dissatisfaction, fatigue, “the weight of life,” or perhaps not felt at all. At some point, however, they reach a critical point, one that the person can no longer tolerate and breaks down, returning to a briefly soothing or distracting bad habit. In addition, reaching such a tipping point can lead to point 4.
4. Destructive behavior in relationships
When a person reaches a critical point, their attitude can change. Repressed emotions may manifest. Or they may feel anger or even rage instead, which they may want to express by fighting, destroying their surroundings, and possibly harming themselves. Severe stress, a feeling of being overwhelmed, irritability, loss of control, and a deceptive feeling of vigor can occur too.
In these cases, the person may exhibit destructive behavior – they’re not likely to smash everything around, but may yell or insult the other people, take offense and enact revenge for minor things, exhibit strong passive aggression, and purposely initiate conflicts to vent emotions in them. This usually happens suddenly, with no apparent reason, and the causes for the conflicts themselves usually do not correspond to what the person really wants in a relationship.
For example, among a group of colleagues one of them suddenly had a big fight with the other because that person was constantly distracting others with stories about their hobby. Yes, the instigator’s motive in a “spherical situation in a vacuum” is most likely accumulated irritation due to constant disruptions. But an alexithymic person might say, for example: “I don’t know, I liked listening to his stories, but there was some bitter feeling,”, and it turns out that in fact thet were jealous of the colleague for their passion for this hobby, or they once wanted to succeed in a similar hobby, but it did not work out, and they are ashamed.
Afterwards when this state of disruption passes, the person may experience shame, guilt, anger at themselves, anxiety and helplessness from loss of control – and these emotions settle within them for a new closed circle.
5. Psychosomatic symptoms
Accumulated emotions can also lead to psychosomatic symptoms. Emotions are felt by the body, but not by the mind, so a person can mistake bodily sensations for symptoms of illness, go to the doctors, have examination and no valid diagnosis. And still all these bodily sensations will remain there, maybe constantly, maybe sometimes muted by emotional releases or fleeting distractions, but never leaving.
Such symptoms can include be headaches, nervous tics, heaviness in the chest or stomach, lump or tightness in the throat, tension in the chest, throat stomach, back or limbs, cramps, gastritis, irritable bowel syndrome, insomnia, tremors, high or low blood pressure, and many, many other individual symptoms.
6. Closed circles
Alexithymia leads to more alexithymia – it’s hard to get out of it.
For example, the more a person practices escapism – avoiding, suppressing, replacing, denying emotions and desires – the fewer opportunities they get to feel and understand them, and the more these feeling accumulate and go inside, increasing alexithymia as well as escapism cravings.
Also, the stronger, more vivid positive emotions they receive their escapism methods, the less the feel the background emotions in ordinary life, and the more they crave what escapism gives them.
Alternatively, the more bodily symptoms of alexithymia the person feels, the more anxious they are about their health, the more stressed and helpless they feel, and the more they suppress these feelings, also increasing alexithymia.
7. Complications of other conditions
In addition factors pertaining alexithymia, it tends to complicate other states related to emotional activity. It is more difficult for people to understand, live through, and reframe emotion-related experiences if understanding the emotion itself is a problem.
Conditions possibly related to alexithymia:
- Procrastination. In the majority of cases, procrastination occurs when the person either does not know where to start or is so afraid of failure that they can’t bear to begin the task. In the case of alexithymia, it may be related to the fact that the person does not really want to do the work at all – they don’t want anything because their inner strength goes towards the suppression of emotions, even external motivation no longer works, and the lack of inner motivation does not give new strength.
- Emotional burnout. Sometimes it can be caused long strong stress, dissatisfaction with work, etc. But sometimes it is progressing alexithymia, with loss of motivation and interest to life, weakening positive emotions negatively influencing their work. Neither work nor other things in life bring satisfaction anymore.
- Masked depression, during which the person is unaware or unwilling to accept their dissatisfaction with life and lack of positive emotions, and does not outwardly show the typical signs of depression, but they have psychosomatic symptoms.
- Non-fearful panic attacks are cases in which the person feels the typical symptoms of a panic attack, such as the feeling that they are choking, heart palpitations, body trembles, etc., but they don’t feel the emotional components – fear of death, anxiety. Their mind remains completely clear.
- Passive suicidal idealization is a situation in which the person feels no fear, sadness, regret at the thought of their death, or even feel relief or joy, while not actively trying to commit suicide.
What to do?
You may have read the article and realized that what you read applies to you. If you believe that the problems listed above are strongly interfering with your life, it is better to see a psychotherapist.
If the problem is less intense, you can try other methods and see which of them suits you better. In any case, however, you have to be patient, because no method will work quickly.
- Keeping a diary in which you can describe the most important events of the day and sum up the results.
- Keeping an emotion diary where you can write down the strongest or most intense feelings and emotions you have felt throughout day, for example, with a minimum of three.
- Emotion wheels – there are several variants of wheels or cards of various emotional states, which you can view and compare with your feelings in the present and in the past.
- Mindful meditation, yoga and other techniques to improve the connection of human mind and body.
- Reading novels, audiobooks, short stories, even visual novels. It is in the art of words that the most accessible, and at the same time rich language describes a variety of feelings and emotions. In the future, you can try to write them yourself.
- Group therapy, which is especially relevant for those who do not have many people around. Surrounded by other people, you will be able to study their emotions up close.
Of course, there are other methods around that might work better for you. In any case, we hope that our article was useful for you, and good luck in overcoming alexithymia!