Drs. Colin Hesse and Kory Floyd of Arizona State University found that an array of nonverbal ways to express affection, in particular hugs and touching, can make a positive impact on persons suffering from alexithia and related disorders.
In an article published in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences, Affection Mediates the Impact of Alexithymia on Relationships, they surveyed 921 people and measured shared affection, attachment levels, and the number of close relationships. The researchers found that even though alexithymia has a negative impact on the formation of intimacy in relationships, the impact was lessened when they receive higher amounts of affectionate hugging and touching, among other affectionate communications.
What is alexithymia?
The word itself means “no words for emotion’ and stems from the Greek words “lexis” which means a lack of words, and the word “thymia” for emotion. About 10% of persons suffer from high alexithymia, according to assistant professor of communication, Dr. Colin Hesse, at the University of Missouri.
Persons affected by alexithymia tend to be over-focused on external facts and details, are described as detached or aloof by others, and may be limited in their ability for creative expression and imagination. Their capacity for empathic connection, a key way to understand self and other, is blocked.
High levels of alexithymia are associated with problems in relationship formation, anxiety in social situations or avoidance of relationships in general. Some studies also link the inability to feel emotions with eating and anxiety disorders, as well as substance abuse.
A key connection to self, mind and body?
Alexithymia was once linked with psychosomatic disorders, an expression of physical symptoms or pain in the body in a person that was not able to express emotions. Now studies show people can have have alexithymia without physical symptoms or a psychosomatic disorder.
It’s no surprise that alexithymia would cause problems. The human brain is wired for relationships, for empathic connection, and the language of the body is emotion. The ability to empathize is key in connecting and making sense of our body’s signals and sensations in response to life activity in and around us.
In another study, Drs. Hesse and Kory, along with colleague Dr. Alan Mikkelson, reviewed research on the impact of the body’s physiological processes in shaping how we communicate nonverbally and verbally, as well as the effect of how we communicate on the physiology of our bodies.
The complex interactions between the body’s physiological processes and communications tell us that emotional responses of love, anger, stress all impact the physiology of the body quite significantly, and suggest these they can also be harnessed, with conscious awareness and intention, to produce healthful outcomes in situational contexts of family, couple relationships, parenting and so on.
It’s impossible to separate physical or verbal communications from emotion. This ability to empathize is a cultivated ability to listen, interpret and express emotion that is essential from birth, integral to our happiness and health, and critical to an infant.
An infant cannot communicate in words, and thus, emotion in the form of crying or babbling, for example, is the only way to let parents know it feels hungry or uncomfortable, happy or simply needs attention or the soothing comfort of touch to experience a physical release the love and safety hormone Oxytocin.
As we grow, too often, we learn not to ask for what we need, at least not directly, likely because we consciously or subconsciously decide that asking for what we need causes more pain than not.
Our biggest fears are intimacy fears, such as rejection, inadequacy, abandonment, and so on, thus we learn to associate emotions of fear, shame or guilt to our requests for human connection. If we have learned that painful emotions are unwelcome signs of weakness or pathology (a widespread belief in our culture), we train our body subconsciously that there’s more “pleasure” in tuning out our own — or others’ — emotions of distress.
When that happens, the mind of the body, or subconscious, is put on alert and keeps a record of protective strategies at hand that have lowered our stress in the past, albeit in quick fix ways. To the body, whatever lowers anxiety is pleasure (which explains why we can get “hooked” on what is unhealthy or harmful). Unfortunately, we learn to associate “rewards” with using our defensive strategies, as when we have outbursts of depression, anxiety or depression etc., as these behaviors often elicit caring responses from others (at least initially).
Pain is a way that our body cries for help, calling us to take some action, big or small. It’s the way our body tells us that an excess of low-energy emotion (fear) is present in one or more of the systems of our body, and to process, work and release it. As we learn to tune in and understand the signals of your body, we can begin to explore and appreciate an distress signals from our body as assets, in the form of information that helps us to best care for our self, emotionally, mentally and physically.
Emotional mastery or intelligence is shown to be key indicator of success, more vital than logical intelligence. No wonder. All emotions are of value to us when we learn to see them as potentially valuable information, and not statements (evaluations, diagnoses, judgments…) of who we are.
Floyd, Kory; Wayne, Mikkelson, Alan C. Colin Hesse (2007. The Biology of Human Communication, 2nd Edition. Florence, KY: Thomson Learning.
Hesse, Colin, & Floyd, Kory (2008). Affectionate Experience Mediates the Effects of Alexithymia on Mental Health and Interpersonal Relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 25, 793-810.
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Last reviewed: 13 Jul 2013