Identifying And Processing Emotions With Alexithymia
As a person with autism, I suffer from alexithymia. Alexithymia is the inability to identify and describe one’s own emotions. Alexithymia exists in non-autistic people as well, but it’s not very prevalent. It is very prevalent in people with autism. It’s something I’m only just beginning to effectively manage at 23 years old. Better late than never though, right?
I’d like to share how I manage it, but don’t take this as “official” advice. I am not a psychiatrist nor do I have any expertise in that area. My only credentials are that I’m a person with alexithymia and I’ve found techniques for managing it that work for me. I take no responsibility for bad outcomes in anyone who follows my advice.
These techniques may work even if you don’t have alexithymia, but they’re targeted particularly at individuals who suffer from it.
Noticing The Presence of Emotion With Alexithymia
The first thing to understand is you can’t process your emotions unless you’re aware of them. Since I have alexithymia, I’m often totally unaware of how I feel, making it difficult to process emotions directly. However, I have discovered a few roundabout ways to notice emotion though.
Looking For Specific Thoughts And Behaviors
What I do is I watch for certain thoughts and behaviors that I know are associated with strong emotions. Behaviors are the external physical manifestations of emotions and thoughts are the internal manifestations. So I can notice that I’m feeling an emotion by noticing troubling thoughts and behaviors, even if I don’t know exactly what that emotion is yet.
For example, if the frequency of my autistic self-stimulation increases a lot in a short time period, or if I merely notice the intention to engage in self-stimulating behaviors, then I know I’m feeling a strong emotion. I might not know what it is yet, but I know I’m feeling something and that’s the first step.
“How do you notice the thoughts and behaviors that indicate an emotion?” I train myself to notice them through a specific form of meditation. I sit upright with my eyes closed watching my breath and wait for an intention to show up. Maybe I want to adjust in my seat or scratch my shoulder. Whatever it is, I just notice the intention to act. Then I purposely don’t satisfy it.
The benefit of not satisfying the intention is that keeps it around for longer as an object of meditation. It also strengthens my ability to be comfortable before my intentions, wishes, desires, and goals are met. Then, instead of automatically fulfilling them as soon as possible, I have the power to decide whether or not I want to. It reduces my automaticity of thought so I’m no longer just on autopilot chasing pleasure and avoiding pain.
Meditation isn’t necessary for noticing your conscious intentions and behaviors, but it definitely helps. As you get better at noticing the internal and external manifestations of emotion, you may even begin to notice what before was subconscious mental activity.
With alexithymia, discovering you’re feeling an emotion is half the challenge. The rest is identifying which emotion you’re feeling. So let’s talk about how I do that.
Identifying Emotion With Alexithymia
I ask myself “How would a neurotypical person feel if they were me right now?” Even though it can be hard for me to identify how neurotypicals feel in real time, when I’m given time to contemplate, that question uncovers a lot of my own emotions that were buried beneath the surface.
I am autistic, so I don’t feel the exact same way neurotypicals do given the same circumstances. And when I do feel the same, it might be for different reasons. But I’m not an alien. There is some overlap that I can make use of. I can still ask the question as a compass and it will guide me in the direction of the emotion I’m feeling.
Processing Emotion With Alexithymia
Finally, to process my emotions, I usually turn to meditation. I try to recreate the conditions that originally made me feel the emotion. For instance if it was a past event, I replay the event in my mind, asking probing questions such as:
- “What do I notice about the event?”
- “How does my perspective affect how I think about the event?”
- “Do I remember similar events in the past which caused the same emotion?”
It’s not important to have full answers to every probing question. This practice is not an intellectual exercise. The probing questions are only meant to recreate the unprocessed emotions. After the emotions come about, the goal is to feel them without judgment. In other words, the goal is to merely witness them without superfluous thinking getting in the way.
Observing thoughts and emotions without judgment shouldn’t take much effort. If you’re trying really hard, then you’re doing it wrong. The key is to relax and allow the thoughts and emotions to happen by themselves. If you catch yourself trying to make yourself have a certain emotion or feel a certain way about something, don’t try harder. Instead, ask yourself “Why do I think I need to feel this way about this thought?” and continue on.
Writing is another activity I do that helps me process emotions. It’s almost the same as meditation, except on paper instead of in my mind. I think about what’s bothering me and write it all down. It might sound simple, like “Oh just write down what bothers me. How obvious.” but the way it’s done is all important. Understanding the methodology and its purpose is important if you wanna do it right. So I’ll now expound on that.
When I’m doing this technique, I’m not rushing myself to get to the end. The point isn’t to finish as fast as possible. The spelling and punctuation don’t matter. The tone of writing doesn’t matter. The language I’m writing in doesn’t matter. The goal is to write every thought I have about what’s bothering me, not one thought excluded, no matter how crazy it might sound if someone else read it. No one else is going to read it and I can discard it when I’m done anyways. There’s no need to reread the paper unless I feel like I ought to.
The whole point of the writing is the same as the meditation: to acknowledge my thoughts and emotions without judging them. When I’m writing down my thoughts, that’s acknowledging that they exist, in a way. If I find myself having an opinion of what I’ve written, I write down that opinion too. I continue writing until I’m all out of opinions and I’ve written everything I want to write. I can always write more later if I wish to.
What I’m describing is how to use writing as a kind of meditative tool to process one’s emotions. It has much broader applicability than processing emotions though. It can help with all sorts of things. There are benefits and caveats to it as opposed to regular meditation, but that’s for another entry.
“Isn’t this just stream of consciousness writing?” No. It’s related, but not exactly the same. The difference is I don’t write down the thoughts that aren’t relevant to the emotion I’m dealing with. “But how do you know if it’s relevant?” If I’m writing about the death of a family member and I think “I could really use a glass of water right now.” that’s not relevant. I’m just thirsty. If I can’t decide if it’s relevant or not, I write about why I can’t decide. If I have a strong emotional reaction to the thought, like “I shouldn’t write that down!” then it’s almost certainly relevant and I should write it down.
“How does acknowledging thoughts help process emotions?” I’m no psychologist. I just know that it does based on personal experience. The best way I can explain it is that the mind works on a similar principle to the Observer Effect in physics. The classic example is when you’re checking the tire pressure of an automobile. In order to check the tire pressure, a little bit of air has to seep out of the tire. The act of measuring the tire changes it.
Similarly, when you observe your own thoughts and emotions without judgment, your mind changes a little bit with each observation. If you make it a regular habit to observe your thoughts, your mind changes a lot. You feel more in control. You stop doing things you later regret. And life is just better.
There are other techniques for processing emotions if you have alexithymia, but I’ve found meditation and writing to be particularly helpful for me personally. Maybe talking to friends or a therapist is more your style. I view those as more social methods, but I believe they accomplish the same basic thing: Getting you to acknowledge your thoughts and emotions without judgment. If you have a severe condition like PTSD, definitely look for a professional or trusted friend before you try any meditative exercise.
A good therapist, especially one trained in cognitive behavioral therapy, can help you shed light on your deep seated emotional baggage, related thoughts, and core beliefs. Unfortunately, the people who need therapy the most avoid it because they don’t want to think they need help. In my experience, the people who are certain they don’t need help need it more than anyone. Regardless, there’s nothing wrong with reaching out.
A trusted friend who is emotionally receptive can also help, but probably not as much as a trained therapist. Neither a friend nor a therapist can acknowledge your thoughts and emotions for you though. You have to step through that door. Other people can only show you the door.
Sleep, Exercise, And Diet
I wanna say something about sleep, diet, and exercise as well. Sleep loss has been found to effect emotional reactivity and most autistic people have chronic sleep problems. For as long as I can remember, when I’ve been expected to be somewhere at a particular time, like a job or at a class, I’ve struggled with it due to sleep.
Here’s what has helped me with sleep:
- Turning off electronic screens at least an hour before bedtime.
- Avoiding mentally and physically high energy activities before bedtime.
- Reducing stress and negative emotions using the aforementioned techniques.
- Regular exercise.
- Not drinking caffeine.
Those tips apply to everybody, but I think they’re especially important for autistic people who have chronic sleep problems.
Exercise is also extremely important for self-regulation, especially for autistic people. I get some form of exercise every single day. I don’t let myself go without it. I assume autistic people get less exercise than the general population, so if you’re autistic and not getting any, definitely start. Even a few minutes per day can improve your life.
And finally there’s diet. The human body is not evolved to eat processed junk food. It’s evolved for non-processed food. Eat things that your great grandparents would recognize as food. When you go to the supermarket, stick to the edges. Basically everything in the middle is processed trash that will wreck your body. I try to eat as little processed food as I can.
Ultimately, the root cause of most of the world’s sleep, exercise, and dietary problems are environmental, not individual. People used to get more sleep. We used to exercise more. We used to eat non-processed foods almost exclusively. All of humanity didn’t suddenly lose willpower. It just became less convenient to live a healthy life thanks mainly to the economic pressure of extreme capitalism.
The real solution to these problems is to put an end to the extreme capitalism driving them. But until we collectively do that, the only thing we can do as individuals is try to mitigate the harmful effects in our own lives.
For the sake of completeness, I want to briefly say something about drug use as a means of processing emotions. There’s no denying the usefulness drugs can have in clinically depressed and traumatized people. Just look at the trials on MDMA for treating PTSD or magic mushrooms for treating depression. They’re amazing. But those trials take place in highly controlled clinical settings. Most users of psychedelics don’t have that available.
The biggest advantage meditation and writing have over drug use is they’re more controlled. If you take 500 micrograms of LSD outside of a clinical environment, assuming it’s even real LSD, and you have unprocessed emotions knocking at the door, you have a very high chance of a so-called bad trip. If you meditate or write and things get too real for you, you can just stop.
Drugs dysregulate brain chemistry and put you at an increased risk of retraumatization. If you’re going to use them outside a clinical context, stick to low doses and remember set and setting.
So that wraps up this entry. I hope to discuss autism-related issues more in the future. Autism is a very broad topic, so breaking it up into these mini entries seems like the best way forward. Feel free to send me any thoughts and feedback you may have. You can find my contact information on the about page.
Thanks for reading.
1: Coming Out as Autistic
2: Autism And Alexithymia
3: Observer Effect
4: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
5: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
6: The Power of Convenience
7: Extreme Capitalism Ruins Everything
8: About Page