Research on alexithymia (1) has found significant positive associations between alexithymia, difficulties identifying feelings, difficulties describing feelings and alcohol problems (Thorberg, Young, Sullivan, & Lyvers, 2009; Thorberg, Young, Sullivan, Lyvers, Connor & Feeney, 2010).
Individuals with alcohol-dependence and alexithymia report more severe
alcohol problems compared to those with alcohol-dependence alone (Sakuraba, Kubo, Komoda, & Yamana, 2005; Uzun, Ates, Cansever, & Ozsahin, 2003). They also have poorer treatment outcomes (Loas, Fremaux, Otmani, Lecercle, & Delahousse, 1997; Ziolkowski, Gruss, & Rybakowski, 1995).
Attachment theory is a widely used framework for understanding emotion regulation as well as alexithymia, and this perspective has also been applied to understand alcohol use disorders. One hypothesized function of attachment is the interpersonal regulation of affective experiences (Shaver & Mikulincer, 2007; Sroufe, 1977).
In the development of alexithymia, attachment theories stress the importance of significant others in childhood (Krystal & Krystal, 1988; Nemiah, 1977; Taylor et al., 1997). Evidence suggests that alexithymia is related to dysfunctional parenting (Thorberg, Young, Sullivan & Lyvers, in press). Insecure attachment is associated with alexithymia and both harmful drinking and alcohol-dependence (Cooper, Shaver, & Collins, 1998; De Rick & Vanheule, 2006; Thorberg & Lyvers, 2006; Thorberg, Young, Sullivan, Lyvers, Connor & Feeney, 2009). In addition, alcohol abuse has
been hypothesized to be a consequence of alexithymia (Taylor, Bagby, & Parker, 1997).
Individuals may use alcohol to escape feelings of rejection and establish a “secure attachment base” (Hofler & Kooyman, 1996), given alcohol’s stress and anxiety reducing effects.
In this study (1) results highlight the importance of alexithymia and difficulties identifying and describing feelings as related to preoccupation, obsessions and compulsive behaviors regarding drinking in those with alcohol-dependence. Or in more simple terms between alexithymia and craving. In this study 32.4% of this alcohol This is less than previously reported prevalence rates of 45-67% (Thorberg et al., 2009).
In this study (1) alcohol-dependence severity, alexithymia and insecure attachment were associated with more intrusive and interfering cognitions, ideas and impulses about alcohol, including an impaired ability to control these thoughts and impulses. This cognitively based “craving” as measured by the Obsessive Compulsive Drinking Scale (OCDS; Anton, Moak, & Latham, 1995), which is designed to assess obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior toward drinking.
Hence there was a demonstrated relationships between alexithymia, craving, anxious attachment and alcohol problems in an alcohol-dependent sample. Higher levels of alexithymia led to a stronger desire for alcohol
that was partially explained by an underlying mechanism, anxious attachment. One possible reason for this it may reflect an impairment in affect regulation.
Findings of the RAAS-Anxiety scale measured insecure attachment as related to a current or previous relationship, these findings may suggest that
worries about being rejected, not cared for or unloved lead to an increased craving for alcohol.
One explanation for this mediational relationship may perhaps be that increased relationship stress is associated with a fear of intimacy and anxious attachment that leads to increased craving and perhaps a stronger attachment to alcohol.
In other words, the alexithymia of insecure attachment may cause a stress dysregulation which prompts craving particularly as craving is a consequence of dysregulated stress systems. Stress dysregulations is also implicated in increased or more chronic alexithymia as suggested by George Koob in various articles. This has also been observed in other studies – this relationships of negative affect (anxiety, negative mood and emotion) with both alexithymia and craving (Sinha & Li, 2007).
To summarise, the results of this study support important relationships between alexithymia, difficulties identifying and describing feelings in relation to alcohol craving. These relationships extend to significantly higher levels of obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors in relation to alcohol use and alcoholism severity amongst individuals with combined alexithymia and alcohol-dependence, compared with alcohol-dependence alone.
This study identified anxious attachment as a potentially important mechanism, in the relationship between alexithymia and alcohol craving.
Thorberg, F. A., Young, R. M., Sullivan, K. A., Lyvers, M., Connor, J. P., & Feeney, G. F. (2011). Alexithymia, craving and attachment in a heavy drinking population. Addictive behaviors, 36(4), 427-430.