Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Ever Hear of Alexithymia?


Not everyone can talk about the daily trials we all face and with which we must contend or suffer the consequences. For many, just trying to get the words out is a chore and they feel as though the words are literally stuck in their throats. It’s something that can happen to anyone in the face of anxiety or a sense of panic. Then there are those who feel the emotions and decide they will not verbalize what they are experiencing.

I wouldn’t call them “withholders,” but people in need of some assistance in feeling comfortable with upsetting emotions or thoughts. Not so easy for some, but there is a mechanism that may bring these feelings to the fore and new research is looking at how kids may be placed at risk because of it.

Simply put, according to some theorists, alexithymia really means that when we cannot speak for ourselves, the body will “speak” for us. Here is where we find what has been commonly known as psychosomatic symptoms that result from emotional stress. Today I saw an interesting article that address how kids are often, according to this author, misdiagnosed with physical illnesses when they really are dealing with emotional issues. In my experience, it doesn’t only happen with kids and the older an adult becomes, the more likely they are going to be seen as having a medical illness rather than a psychological challenge.

Many people have offered explanations of why and how alexithymia occurs and whether it is a stable personality trait or something which is situation-dependent and waxes and wanes with emotional experiences. Whichever position you take, you should understand that there are also physical components of this trait and here is where I find it most interesting.

We can never say that just one thing causes people to be unable to release their emotions or thoughts because human being are incredibly complex. Genetics, biology, culture, education and even early childhood training all combine to bring about an individual’s reaction to their life situations.

The health problems that are misdiagnosed in kids, according to the article, included stomach pain, headaches, limb pain and tiredness.  The article went on to explain that these children most probably had problems related to their family situation, parental influences, stress and coping problems.  Who were the most likely medical professionals to be conversant in parsing out this particular “speech” and arriving at a correct diagnosis? Pediatric nurses they concluded.

Why do you suppose that would be? My take is that the nurses probably spend more time with the kids than the physicians, get to interact more with the parents and have much more information with which to make an informed decision. So, nurses rock once again.

I know you don’t go around looking for studies, but some of them are really revealing. Another I ran across looked at physical pain in people who empathized with anyone experiencing social isolation or discrimination.  When the person identified with the affected individual in some way, their brains actually registered that they were experiencing activity in areas where physical pain is registered. So, there is social pain as well as physical pain and both are shown in brain scans of the same brain area.  We experience the pain of others just as surely as though we were in the painful social situation.  Of course, you can see there are many implications for this and you may argue that this isn’t the case for everyone. You’d probably be right, but isn’t that what makes us human—complexity, unpredictability?