Translated, the term “alexithymia” literally means a lack (a) of words (lexi) for emotions (thymia). Whilst the concept is similar to that of emotion dysregulation, it is generally accepted that emotion dysregulation refers to a more broad range of behaviors, whereas alexithymia is a more nuanced and specific type of emotion dysregulation. Since its inception, alexithymia has been defined as comprising five main features; (i) a difficulty in identifying one’s emotions (ii) a difficulty in describing self-feelings verbally (iii) a reduction or incapability to experience emotions (iv) an externally orientated cognitive style, and (v) poor capacity for fantasizing or symbolic thought.
Alexithymia was originally rooted in the field of Psychosomatics with MacLean being one of the first to suggest a link between a person’s emotional experiences and their physical bodily complaints. He recognized that a large proportion of his psychosomatic patients reported a limited ability to use verbal or symbolic cues to discuss and identify their emotions. Sifneos described how, during his work in a psychiatric clinic in the 1960’s and 70’s, he was struck by psychosomatic patients “marked difficulty in finding appropriate words to describe how they felt, giving the impression that they did not understand the meaning of the word “feeling””. Sifneos goes on to detail how he termed these experiences “alexithymia”. This led to further research which explored the link between these experiences and psychosomatic complaints.
Following Sifneos’s original observations, there have been a number of empirical attempts at quantifying the relationship between alexithymia and somatisation. A review of such literature found a small to moderate relationship between the two phenomena with correlation coefficients ranging from −0.26 to 0.60.