What Is Alexithymia?

The term “alexithymia” is Greek in origin and simply means “no emotions for words.” This aptly named psychological term describes individuals with trouble feeling and/or expressing emotions. In other words, it is used to describe those who are unconnected (either fully or partially) from the emotive signals their bodies use to express their feelings internally.

People with alexithymia typically appear to others as aloof, stoic, lacking humor, or socially awkward.


Because alexithymia is associated with an inability to understand or express feelings, it can be challenging for someone with this condition to recognize its symptoms. Individuals with a condition that inhibits their ability to feel emotions may come off to others as disinterested, apathetic, or unable to make connections.

Many people with alexithymia may experience the following in social contexts, though they may have trouble expressing, naming, or recognizing these feelings for themselves.

  • Emptiness
  • Anger
  • Confusion
  • Discomfort
  • Increased heart rate
  • Panic
  • Difficulty reading faces or understanding the tone of a conversation or room
  • Lack of affection


While the term alexithymia was introduced in the 1970s and the condition has been studied since, many people are still unfamiliar with it. Additionally, even with over four decades of research on the condition, scientists are still not sure what causes this condition. Some studies suggest that there may be a genetic component to alexithymia, and others suggest that it may result from damage to the insula — a part of the brain that plays a crucial role in social skills, empathy, and emotions. 

Other potential risk factors for alexithymia may include other disorders, such as

  • post-traumatic stress disorder, 
  • anxiety disorders, 
  • depressive disorders, 
  • eating disorders, 
  • personality disorders, 
  • psychosomatic disorders, 
  • neurological diseases or injuries, 
  • autism,
  • substance use disorders, and 
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Over the years, research has found links between these disorders and alexithymia. However, it is still unclear whether or not these disorders can directly cause alexithymia or if they simply correlate with the condition. We will dive deeper into some of the most well-researched links in a later section, but research is constantly ongoing into these connections; knowing which is the “cause” and the “consequence” has proven extremely challenging.

Diagnosis & Treatment

Like many neurological disorders and mental illnesses, there is no single test or diagnosis practice, or treatment option for alexithymia. The condition can be diagnosed by a mental health professional based on a questionnaire or with the help of a neurologist performing an MRI scan of your insula. However, it is not officially recognized by the DSM-5 (the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

Alexithymia and Other Disorders

As mentioned earlier, there are links between alexithymia and a number of other disorders. Some of the most well-researched links include the following four: depression, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), neurological diseases, and trauma disorders.


Many individuals who experience a major depressive disorder or postpartum disorder may note a numbing or dampening of emotions or a loss of empathy. Additionally, individuals who have alexithymia are more likely to experience depression as they may find connecting with others meaningfully to be more challenging without the ability to connect to their own emotions.

Because this relationship can go both ways, it is unclear whether alexithymia is a cause or a result of depression or if it can be both, depending on the situation and the individual.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

One of the most common stereotypes of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a lack of empathy and difficulty expressing emotions. This stereotype has been studied over the years and debunked. Most studies, like this one, have begun exploring the correlation between ASD and alexithymia. Many of these studies have found that this lack of empathy is likely due to alexithymia rather than being a symptom of ASD. 

Still, while there are many people with ASD and alexithymia, there are also many with ASD and no alexithymia (and vice versa). This means the link between these two conditions is not strictly causational but rather correlational.

Neurological Diseases

Individuals who have suffered from a traumatic brain injury, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, dystonia, Huntington’s disease, or multiple sclerosis (MS) are at a higher risk for alexithymia. While more research is needed to understand what makes individuals with any of these neurological diseases more susceptible to alexithymia, there is a noticeable link between these conditions.

Trauma Disorders

A number of people develop alexithymia after experiencing a traumatic event or series of events. Post-traumatic stress disorder and early childhood emotional trauma disorder are the two most likely culprits of alexithymia because they dramatically disrupt one’s emotional development and awareness. 

In the case of individuals with early childhood emotional trauma, alexithymia can arise as a natural progression of growing up without the right type of emotional validation and acceptance from parents, guardians, or other family members. This is one of the most common causes for alexithymia as these individuals could never truly express their emotions (or were punished or ridiculed when they did) even from a young age and likely learned to simply bury their feelings rather than express them.

How to Cope with Alexithymia 

Recognize It

One of the most challenging parts of understanding and coping with alexithymia is recognizing that it is there. Since this condition is characterized by a lack of awareness of your internal emotions, many people go their whole lives without noticing it is even there. So, the first step in learning to cope with this condition is to recognize that it is there and note how it impacts you.

Connect Emotions with Physical Feelings

If you have alexithymia, you may have trouble putting the right name to your feelings in any situation. While this can be incredibly frustrating — especially in a context like therapy where you are expected to share your feelings — there are ways to cultivate this ability. The most effective of which is simply working to connect physical sensations with the feelings they accompany. For example, if you notice your heartbeat accelerating, light abdominal cramping, or your hands sweating, you may feel nervous or uncomfortable.

This strategy can be incredibly useful in helping you to build emotional awareness, but it can be challenging to do alone — especially if you do not know where to start. This brings us to our final tip: try working with a therapist.

Try Therapy

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to healing from alexithymia. Each treatment method for this condition should be tailored to the individual because not all people will have the same experience with alexithymia nor the same mentality on how to best cope with it. What works for someone else may not work for you, and vice versa. This is where working with a therapist can be incredibly helpful.

Therapists have the experience and mental health awareness needed to help you understand and recognize your emotions. An experienced therapist can act as a role model and teacher in emotional maturity and expression and help you cultivate further emotional awareness in yourself. Additionally, therapy can help you identify what techniques and methods of building emotional self-awareness work best for you.

If you are struggling with understanding or expressing your emotions, please do not hesitate to reach out to us today at Love Heal Grow to get in touch with one of our therapists.


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