Alexithymia and PTSD
“How are you feeling?” – for some people, this is a simple question to answer. However, if you suffer from alexithymia, a condition that impairs your ability to identify and describe your emotions, answering this question can be particularly difficult. Alexithymia is more common than you might think and can often co-occur with mental health conditions like depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a condition that can develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event or events. It is characterised by a range of symptoms, including intrusive thoughts or flashbacks, nightmares, hyperarousal, avoidance behaviours, and negative changes in mood or thoughts. One lesser-known issue that can arise in individuals with PTSD or C-PTSD is alexithymia.
In the UK, studies suggest that up to 10% of the general population experience alexithymia, with rates even higher among individuals with mental health conditions or conditions such as Autism. The prevalence rate of alexithymia among people with PTSD has been cited to be as high as 85% in some studies.
What is Alexithymia?
Alexithymia literally means ‘no words for emotions’ in Greek. It affects an person’s ability to identify and express their own emotions, and can limit imagination so people must rely on what is known as ‘external oriented thinking’ meaning they use external signals to make sense of the world rather than following their inner guidance. People with alexithymia often struggle to understand their own, and other people’s emotions, and may have difficulty communicating how they are feeling to others. This can understandably lead to a variety of issues, including relationship difficulties, feelings of isolation, and mental health problems.
The connection between PTSD and Alexithymia
Research has found a strong link between PTSD & C-PTSD and alexithymia. People with PTSD or C-PTSD are more likely to have alexithymia than those without the disorder. This may be due in part to the fact that PTSD and C-PTSD can cause emotional numbing, making it difficult for individuals to identify and express their feelings. Additionally, people with PTSD or C-PTSD may have experienced traumatic events that were so overwhelming that they had to shut down emotionally in order to cope. This can lead to long-term issues with emotional regulation and alexithymia.
The impact of Alexithymia on PTSD treatment
It’s important to be able to identify if someone is experiencing alexithymia, as the inability, or difficulty with understanding your emotions can have a significant impact on the success of PTSD and C-PTSD treatment. People with alexithymia may struggle to engage in therapy, as they may find it difficult to express their emotions and describe their experiences. This can make it challenging for therapists to help them process traumatic memories and develop coping strategies. Additionally, alexithymia can make it difficult for individuals to identify when they are experiencing symptoms of PTSD or C-PTSD, which can make it harder to seek treatment.
However, it is important to note that people with alexithymia can still benefit from PTSD or C-PTSD treatment. Therapists can work with these individuals to help them identify and label their emotions, which can be a crucial first step in the healing process. Additionally, some therapies, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), may be particularly effective for individuals with alexithymia, as they focus on developing concrete coping skills rather than exploring emotions in depth to begin with.
How to support someone with PTSD and Alexithymia
If you know someone who is struggling with PTSD/C-PTSD and alexithymia, there are a few things you can do to support them. First and foremost, it is important to be patient and understanding. People with alexithymia may struggle to communicate their emotions, but this does not mean they are not feeling them. Encourage the person to seek treatment and offer to help them find a therapist who specializes in working with individuals with PTSD or C-PTSD and alexithymia.
It can also be helpful to focus on coping strategies, such as deep breathing, mindfulness, journaling, and other relaxation techniques to help with emotional awareness and regulation. These strategies can help individuals with PTSD or C-PTSD and alexithymia to manage their symptoms in a tangible way, even if they struggle to identify and label their emotions.
Alexithymia is a complex condition that can have a significant impact on individuals with PTSD or C-PTSD. However, with the right treatment and support, you can ease the symptoms and improve your quality of life. By understanding the connection between PTSD and alexithymia, we can work to provide more effective and compassionate care for those who need it.
Juhyun Park, Jin Yong Jun, Yu Jin Lee, Soohyun Kim, So-Hee Lee, So Young Yoo, Seog Ju Kim, The association between alexithymia and posttraumatic stress symptoms following multiple exposures to traumatic events in North Korean refugees, Journal of Psychosomatic Research, Volume 78, Issue 1, 2015, Pages 77-81, ISSN 0022-3999 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2014.09.007.
Demers LA, Olson EA, Crowley DJ, Rauch SL, Rosso IM (2015) Dorsal Anterior Cingulate Thickness Is Related to Alexithymia in Childhood Trauma-Related PTSD. PLoS ONE 10(10): e0139807. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0139807
Photo by Jens Johnsson
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Treatments for PTSD
It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.