Alexithymia in Dissociation and PTSD


“There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.” (Laurell K. Hamilton, Mistral’s Kiss). The truth is, when escaping the pain of the past, it doesn’t matter how fast or how far you’ve run. In an instant, the slightest touch, scent or noise has the ability to transport the memories of the past back to the present. The past may not be live; However, for someone who experiences a traumatic event, fragments of the past continuously haunt the present.

“Dissociation is the essence of trauma. The overwhelming experience is split off and fragmented, so that the emotions, sounds, images, thoughts and physical sensations related to the trauma take on a life of their own. These sensory fragments of memory intrude into the present; where they are literally relived” (The Body Keeps the score). In other words, a traumatic memory separates one’s mind from their painful experience. A common response to a traumatic event is referred to as alexithymia, which is linked to dissociative disorders, as well as PTSD. Alexithymia is a phenomenon where one is unable to identify their own feelings and emotions. “Difficulty identifying feelings significantly predict dissociative tendencies. This is consistent with clinical observations that children who resort to dissociation following trauma have difficulty describing feelings.When one resorts to secondary dissociative states as an automatic response to chronic abuse, self-awareness and perception of external reality are also compromised” (Frewen & Lanius, 2006). This occurs because one who experiences an unbearable event often learns to cope by repressing their feelings; Instead of confronting their painful past, they have learned to separate from their emotions entirely.

It is important to acknowledge that while this symptom of dissociation allows one to function without feeling pain from the past, it also separates one’s feelings of positivity in the present. “Suppressing their feelings had made it possible to attend to the business of the world, but at a price. They learned to shut down their once overwhelming emotions, and, as a result, they no longer recognized what they were feeling (The Body Keeps the Score). In addition, the body remembers what the mind represses. This is why someone who experiences alexithymia may still have physical symptoms of hypervigilance or discomfort. While they may not be able to describe feeling anxious, they may identify the physical sensations associated with the feeling. “An alexithymic tends to register emotions as physical problems rather than signals that something deserves their attention. Instead of angry or sad, they experience muscle pain, bowel irregularities, or other symptoms for which no cause can be found.” (The Body Keeps the Score).

“People who experience alexithymia can get better only by learning to recognize the relationship between their physical sensations and their emotions, much as colorblind people can only enter the world of color by learning to distinguish and appreciate shades of gray. (The Body Keeps the Score). Dissociation often separates one from themselves; Someone who experiences alexithymia feels as if they are out of touch with their emotions, and their own bodies. However, by seeking therapy one can learn to regain their voice and learn to live in the present.

References

Hamilton, L., & Merlington, L. (2006). Mistral’s kiss. Grand Haven, MI: Brilliance Audio.

Krystal, H. (2018). Alexithymia and Psychotherapy | American Journal of Psychotherapy. Retrieved from https://psychotherapy.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.psychotherapy.1979.33.1.17

Kolk MD, Bessel van der. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (p. 53). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

“Free Image on Pixabay – Baby, Teddy Bear, Play, Toy, Teddy.” Sea ​​Bottom Photocomposition · Free Image on Pixabay, pixabay.com/photos/baby-teddy-bear-play-toy-teddy-623417/.

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