Recent developments in
alexithymia theory and research

Taylor GJ.
University of Toronto, Ontario.
Can J Psychiatry 2000 Mar;45(2):134-42


OBJECTIVE: To review recent developments in alexithymia theory and research that are relevant to the field of psychosomatic medicine. METHOD: Articles were selected from the alexithymia literature published over the past decade that describe advances in the theoretical understanding of alexithymia or report empirical investigations of the relationships of the construct with emotion regulation and with somatic illness and disease. Empirical investigations of the neural correlates of alexithymia were reviewed also, as were studies that explore therapeutic attempts to modify alexithymic characteristics. RESULTS: The salient features of the alexithymia construct are now thought to reflect deficits in the cognitive processing and regulation of emotions. This is supported by studies showing that alexithymia is associated with maladaptive styles of emotion regulation, low emotional intelligence, a bidirectional interhemispheric transfer deficit, and reduced rapid eye movement (REM) density (number of eye movements divided by number of REM periods). Although empirical evidence demonstrates that alexithymia is associated with several somatic disorders, more prospective studies are required to establish the direction of causality. Preliminary data suggest that psychotherapies involving specific techniques to enhance emotional awareness and integrate symbolic and subsymbolic elements of emotion schemas may be effective in reducing alexithymic characteristics. CONCLUSION: Alexithymia is proving to be a heuristically useful construct for exploring the role of personality and emotions in the pathogenesis of certain somatic illnesses and diseases.

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