Alexithymia is defined as “an inability to experience and communicate feelings consciously.” People who have alexithymia have trouble describing their emotions and even identifying what they feel.
This difficulty expressing emotion is sometimes seen in people with depression and Asperger syndrome. It is also associated with physical ailments such as hypertension.
A recent study from South Korea explores the connection between alexithymia and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
How Does OCD Affect You?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is characterized by a fixation on certain ideas and beliefs that results in recurrent worries and strange behaviors. People who have OCD genuinely fear that horrible things will happen unless they perform rituals. These rituals have no real link to the events the obsessive-compulsive person wishes to avoid. However, the compulsive behaviors allow the person to feel safer and less anxious. This makes the behaviors more likely to be repeated even when the individual would rather stop doing them.
For example, many people with OCD have a strong fear of contamination. They think they will be exposed to germs and catch a deadly disease. To prevent this, they feel the need to wash their hands over and over again, even if their skin becomes raw. Another common fear for people with OCD is that their failure to perform a behavior will lead to the death of a loved one.
What Causes OCD and Alexithymia?
People with OCD are aware their behaviors and fears are illogical and excessive. Nevertheless, they feel compelled to continue their ritualistic actions because they can’t stop thinking about the imagined consequences. This is thought to be caused by some malfunction in the brain in combination with environmental stress.
The researchers in the study mentioned above noted that alexithymia and OCD may share a common factor. Participants in the study who had OCD and regularly displayed emotionally stunted reactions were more likely to have experienced childhood stress and emotional problems in the mother-child relationship.
There was also a correlation between age of onset for OCD and alexithymia. People who developed OCD at a younger age had a higher likelihood of emotional difficulties.
The participants in the study with OCD were also more likely to have alexithymia if they had sexual or religious obsessions. Obsessive-compulsives in the study who had germ obsessions or other preoccupations were not shown to have the same emotional problems.
Biologically, alexithymia and OCD were alike in that they may both arise from dysfunction in a certain area of the brain. The study supported previous theories that the anterior cingulate cortex may be involved in the development of alexithymia as well as OCD.