Exploring Interoception and Alexithymia: How Are the Two Linked?
For some, identifying and describing how they feel—whether it’s an emotion or a physical sensation—is not always easy. In fact, it can be downright difficult. They may feel completely numb or perhaps have so many feels happening at once. In either case, it can be hard to sort out exactly what they are feeling at a certain point in time.
When someone frequently experiences this difficulty identifying how they feel, they might experience something called Alexithymia. Because there’s a connection between interoception and Alexithymia, evidence-based interoception resources can help.
Alexithymia is a Greek term that translates to “no words for emotions.” Researchers commonly define it as an experience in which a person has difficulty identifying and describing their emotions. Essentially, someone who experiences Alexithymia has a hard time understanding their feels.
While about 10% of people experience Alexithymia, the rate increases for people who are neurodivergent, experienced trauma, and/or have a mental health diagnosis.
To me, Alexithymia is only a surface term. I’m more concerned about what is causing it. What is the deeper reason why someone struggles to identify their emotions? Why can it be hard to distinguish between feeling happy, sad, or frustrated? Why can it hard to express emotions to others? As an occupational therapist, finding the root cause of Alexithymia is important because it allows professionals and caregivers to find more effective supports.
What’s the Connection Between Interoception & Alexithymia?
If Alexithymia is a surface term, then something deeper must be at play. Over the last few years, researchers have found that interoception is the underlying neurobiological cause or the foundation of the Alexithymia experience.
Interoception is a sense that allows us to feel our feels and notice the internal sensations inside our bodies. These internal sensations provide valuable clues to our emotions. For example, I’ve learned over time that a tight feeling in my chest and a rolling feeling in my stomach are clues that I’m feeling anxious. My body provides me with clues about my emotional experience. My ability to notice and interpret my body sensations (something that I’ve worked very hard on!) allows me to be more clearly aware of when I feel anxious and, in turn, manage my anxiety more effectively.
Each person has a unique interoception experience, and personal body clues for anxiety will likely be different from my clues. But what we do know from interoception research is that the ability to notice and interpret our body sensations leads to a clearer understanding and awareness of our emotions.
So, if our interoceptive body sensations are providing valuable clues to our emotions, it stands to reason that someone that has difficulty identifying their emotions (aka Alexithymia) might be experiencing a breakdown in their interoceptive awareness. And this is exactly what emerging science supports. So if you, a client, or a loved one has Alexithymia, an interoception-based approach is a must!
Emotion Words, Interoception, and Alexithymia
Many people who experience Alexithymia not only struggle to identify how they feel but also have difficulty putting emotion words to their experience. Research has found that our interoceptive body sensations help to give concrete meaning to a variety of emotion words. Our bodies help to ground the concepts. For example, some have come to understand the word happy, cold, hungry, or in love based upon how their body feels when experiencing these emotions.
Therefore, if someone struggles to notice and/or interpret their internal interoceptive sensations, it makes sense that emotions words might lack concrete meaning. Building a stronger interoceptive understanding can help emotion words become more meaningful for some.
How Can Interoception Supports Improve Alexithymia? Improve Alexithymia with These Tips
There’s a close relationship between interoceptive awareness and Alexithymia. As professionals supporting someone with Alexithymia or someone experiencing Alexithymia yourself, you may be looking for ways to improve emotional understanding. Using these interoception-based support tips can get you started today!
Tip #1: Get Interoceptively Regulated
Getting regulated is the first step to take when seeking to improve Alexithymia. It can be hard to pay attention to how your body feels when you are dysregulated. Not only is someone’s attention difficult to shift in a dysregulated state, but they are also less motivated to pay attention to a body that feels overwhelmed. Consider inner stabilization and using strategies to get the nervous system as regulated as possible. Also, outer stabilization and adapting the environment to promote feelings of safety are important factors in the regulation process.
Tip #2: Evoke and Connect Interoception Sensations
Once regulated, give interoception practice by evoking sensations within the body in ways that are playful and fun. For example, notice how your hands feel when holding an ice cube or notice how your heart feels after jumping up and down a few times. Also, practice noticing and naming your internal sensations when doing daily activities such as washing the dishes, taking a shower, or petting your dog.
Tip #3: Remember, There is No Wrong Way to Feel
Many self-regulation resources out there tend to lump everyone’s feelings into pre-determined boxes, teaching us how each emotion should feel. But that’s just not the way that it works. Every person experiences sensations and emotions in a different way. How your body signals and the way emotions feel to you differs from how my body signals and emotions feel to me. It is important to validate and honor our own unique experience. Undoing the messages we often receive—like there is a ‘right’ way to feel or if we don’t feel that way, something must be wrong with us—can be hard and take practice. Each person’s experience is different, so say it with me, “There is no wrong way to feel!”
Tip #4: Be Kind to Yourself
It’s easy to be unkind to yourself. Embrace the idea that not knowing how you feel is okay, and it can be difficult for many reasons! There’s no right way to experience your feels, and no person is 100% connected to all of their emotions 100% of the time. The feeling experience is not all or nothing, and you can continue to build connections, learn more about your inner self, and better understand your body sensations and emotions with practice.
Use Our Evidence-Based Interoception Resources to Improve Alexithymia
Nurturing a connection to our interoceptive sense is not easy. But with the right evidence-based supports, you can practice noticing bodily sensations and learning what they mean uniquely to you. Our interoception resources help those with Alexithymia be able to better understand and describe how they’re feeling, such as:
One of our most popular resources, The Interoception Curriculum, provides a systematic framework for discussing interoception and Alexithymia.
The Body Check Ring, a tool that includes printable cards, an activity booklet, and an online mini-course, is a great resource and handy interoception communication tool.
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