Project: An examination of alexithymia’s emotional deficits; A multi-modal approach

Acronym: Alexithymia

Alexithymia refers to a multifaceted personality construct that is characterized by a marked difficulty in recognizing and communicating emotions, poor mental imagery, fantasy and externally oriented thinking (Luminet, Taylor,  & Bagby, in press; Taylor & Bagby, 2000). This highly prevalent trait (around 10% of the general population, e.g. Kokkonen et al., 2001) represents poor awareness of self and emotion and has been linked to many psychosomatic and psychiatric conditions, including medically unexplained symptoms, anxiety, depression and increased mortality (e.g. Tolmunen et al., 2010). Until today much remains to be learned regarding how alexithymic traits interact with dimensions of affective cognitive processing, physiology, emotion regulation, and social functioning to influence the development and persistence of dysfunctional, non-adaptive behavioral patterns, subsequently leading to somatic and psychological symptoms. Further studies are needed in order to delineate the exact nature of alexithymic deficits including whether they pertain to behavioral, physiological or subjective aspects of emotion, at what phase of processing they arise (attention, perception, memory, emotion generation and emotion regulation; e.g. Grynberg et al., 2012; Vermeulen, Domachowska, & Nielson, in press), for which stimuli (affective words, facial expressions and/or pictures; Panayiotou & Constantinou, 2015; Peasley-Miklus et al., 2016), due to which associated underlying systems (valence, arousal, social affiliation) and in relation to which alexithymia sub-factors (Luminet et al., 2004).

Initial evidence suggests that training alexithymic individuals to process emotional situations more deeply may improve some aspects of emotional responses (Constantinou et al., 2014), while promising techniques targeting emotion awareness such as attention focus modification (Dadds et al., 2006; Ogrodniczuk, Kealy, Hadjipavlou, & Kameron, in press) have never been applied to alexithymia. More consistent evidence with regards to what specifically is functioning sub-optimally among alexithymic individuals is an essential first step for the development of currently absent prevention approaches to address deficits in this population and prevent the associated health problems.

Alexithymia, a two-year project (started in July 2019) funded by the Internal Grants of the University of Cyprus and led by Professor Dr. Georgia Panayiotou, Center for Applied Neuroscience aims:

  • To use a multi-method approach including objective measures (reaction time-RT, recognition accuracy (RA), eye-tracking- dwell time and number of fixations), biological markers (startle reflex, facial electromyography-EMG, heart rate- HR, heart rate variability- HRV, skin conductance SC, Event Related Potentials-ERPs including P100, P300, and late positive potential-LPP), and self-reports to examine visual face scanning paths, selective and sustained attention, categorical perception, memory, emotion generation (physiological responding & facial expressiveness) and emotion regulation (automatic and conscious) processes in alexithymia.
  • To find domains that could become the target of psychoeducation and intervention, by examining the impact of specific experimental manipulations, such as attention focus modification and depth of processing on the emotional reactions of individuals with different levels of alexithymic traits.

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