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Psychother Psychosom. 1986;46(1-2):96-104.

Alexithymia, clinical and therapeutic aspects.


The clinical observations on alexithymia which were initiated by Sifneos and Nemiah in the earlier 1970s have given rise to a host of studies with implications beyond the psychosomatic field of enquiry. Is alexithymia a pathology of affect or a character neurosis; is it primary or secondary; genetic or developmental? Is it an adaptational deformation related to social class and low psychological sophistication, a life style or a cerebral deficit? Is it global and consistent (trait) or partial and temporary (state)? Is it part of the necessary and sufficient condition for the development of a psychosomatic symptom or is it a nonspecific autoplastic alteration? It is quite possible that alexithymia is one of several mediating processes between stress and disease along with genetic susceptibility, developmental variables, context and reaction to untoward life events, coping dispositions, psychosocial support and sociocultural factors. Therapeutic approaches would depend on whether we are dealing with a primary affectless condition or a secondary one. A differential diagnosis is essential since self-numbing following psychic trauma or a pathological grief, masked and atypical depression are treatable. Blocking of affect may have dire effects on the psychosomatic economy and on the capacity for intimacy. Muscular and psychological rigidity, weariness, ennui and anhedonia may be the only clues to the presence of alexithymia. Since we may be dealing with a spectrum disorder, there is no single treatment modality. There are no controlled studies on the use of psychotropic drugs and psychoanalytic-oriented and behavioral approaches have been shown to be of some benefit.

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