This seminar will explore the notion of stunted emotionality, in which the processing of emotional feedback is compromised. These people (normally men!) score low on measures of emotional intelligence, and tend to misattribute or somatise their emotions. The difficulty with identifying or differentiating emotions impairs their ability to cope with stress, yet they are very challenging clients in therapy due to the lack of emotional insight. They also show little progress on the hidden emotional level due to their failure to form therapeutic relationships.
The trait is known in psychiatry as alexithymia, and it is manifested to some degree in around 10% of the normal population, with a much higher concentration amongst certain clinical groups. Although there is a large body of research into alexithymia, it is not well
known amongst practitioners, and cases tend to misinterpreted according to different therapeutic paradigms as e.g. repression, dissociation, intellectualisation, or personality disorders. However, misinterpreting a cognitive deficit as a psychological defence can provoke serious personal problems, which in turn exacerbate presenting symptoms.
Studies have shown significant correlations with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, medically unexplained symptoms, chronic pain, PTSD, autism spectrum disorders and many other psychological and medical complaints. Recent factor analysis of questionnaire data has revealed an underlying differentiation between types, which may account for the vast splurge of contradictory research findings. Furthermore, neuroscientific
models suggest that the emotion processing system can be compromised in numerous ways by developmental abnormalities, severe trauma or physical injury, with very different implications for individual psychologies.
The failure of alexithymics to respond to therapy has prompted some clinicians to concede that they are untreatable, recommending symptom relief and coping strategies. However, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy may help to reduce levels of alexithymia and associated complaints, by encouraging people to engage the affective dimension of their somatic sensations, and assimilate the feeling function into their mode of being.