The presence of alexithymia (a poor ability to identify emotions or tell the difference between various emotional states) may help predict a reduced quality of life in people affected by alcoholism, according to new findings from a multinational team of researchers. Alexithymia is a relatively new concept that psychologists and psychiatrists sometimes use to explain the poor ability to understand or express one’s general emotions or current emotional circumstances. In a study published in January 2015 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, a group of researchers from Norway, Australia and the U.S. explored the connection between such a lack of ability and reduced quality of life in a person dealing with alcoholism (alcohol dependence).
Alexithymia is not a diagnosable mental health condition. Instead, psychologists and psychiatrists use the term to refer to an adult personality trait centered on unusual difficulty trying to perform such common tasks as recognizing your current emotional state, differentiating between one emotional state and any other emotion and/or using words to relay emotions to other people. Additional problems associated with the presence of this trait include a reduced ability to recognize the facial indicators of other individuals’ emotional states, an underdeveloped ability to use fantasy or imagination, problems with social interaction, a tendency to physically avoid personally or socially unpleasant circumstances and a tendency toward physically inexpressive body postures. Although alexithymia is not a mental illness, the trait can appear in association with a range of mental health issues, including alcohol- or drug-related substance use disorder (addiction and/or non-addicted abuse), bulimia nervosa and other types of eating disorders, a form of anxiety disorder called panic disorder, the group of conditions known as autism spectrum disorders and the group of conditions known as somatic symptom and related disorders. Possible alexithymia-related factors found in all of these illnesses include a reduced ability to understand the emotional content of other people’s facial expressions and a reduced ability to recognize and respond to the cues that govern social interactions.
Quality of Life
As a rule, any given person’s day-to-day quality of life depends on factors that include the ability to maintain adequate physical function, the ability to maintain adequate mental function, the ability to forge and maintain an adequate social support network, the ability to find a satisfying role in a culture or society, the ability to set and achieve meaningful personal goals and the ability to live a life that largely coincides with deeply held personal, political, social, spiritual or religious beliefs. Researchers and doctors can measure such factors with screening tools like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Health-Related Quality of Life assessment.
Alcoholism, Alexithymia and Quality of Life
In the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from two Norwegian institutions, four Australian institutions and the University of California, Los Angeles used a project involving 396 adults between the ages of 18 and 71 to explore the connection between alexithymia and quality of life in a person affected by alcoholism. All of these adults were currently abstinent drinkers previously diagnosed with alcoholism and receiving treatment in the form of a psychotherapeutic approach called cognitive behavioral therapy. The researchers used a screening tool called the Toronto Alexithymia Scale to measure alexithymic personality traits in each participant. They also used a screening tool called the Short-Form Health Survey or SF-36 to measure each participant’s relative quality of life. In addition, the researchers measured alcohol-related cravings and behavior with a third screening tool called the Obsessive Compulsive Drinking Scale. After analyzing the results of the three screening tools, the researchers concluded that the presence of two alexithymia-related traits—problems identifying one’s feelings and problems expressing one’s feelings—largely helps explain a significant decline in quality of life among people in treatment for alcoholism. Conversely, they also concluded that, among people in treatment for alcoholism, the presence of notable alcohol cravings and obsessive alcohol-related behavior helps explain the relationship between alexithymia and reduced quality of life. This interlocking pattern of relationships appears to be substantially stronger in alcohol-dependent men than in alcohol-dependent women. Overall, the study’s authors identified uncontrolled alcohol-related behavior as the linchpin between alcoholism, alexithymia and declining quality of life. They believe that brain-based treatments that improve behavioral control may substantially help alexithymia-affected individuals who are physically dependent on alcohol consumption.