Throughout many of our blogs we have suggested that people suffering with addictive behaviours suffer from emotion processing (alexithymia and emotional awareness difficulties) and regulation deficits. We have suggested these may not only be genetically inherited but mainly the consequence of adverse childhood experiences or maltreatment.
Our sister blog The Alcoholics Guide to Alcoholism recently blogged on how children who have experienced adverse experiences in childhood often repress their emotions in order to cope in Second Stage Recovery?
We found this interesting and researched further to see if there was an actual link between the experiential repressing of emotions/anxiety and alexithymia (the ability to put words to emotion) If so this may suggest that adverse childhood experiences may through time effect the ability to process emotions properly. As if the ability to regulate and process emotions get “worn out” via constant repression of experiential reality.
In previous blogs we have suggested this impaired ability to process emotions leads to undifferentiated emotions which in turn prompts distress based impulsivity which leads to maladaptive decision making and behaviours around drug use and other addictive behaviours.
We found this paper from this year (1) which seems to demonstrate a link between repressing coping styles and alexithymia. Further research is required to continue to look at these as components of the aetiology of addictive behaviours in a subgroup of addicted individuals who have experienced childhood adversity.
“It is over 30 years since Weinberger et al. (1979) identified individuals who possess a repressive coping style. Since then numerous studies have demonstrated that “repressors” avoid negative affect, using an avoidant style of processing negative information with a capacity to avoid socially threatening information (see Myers, 2000, 2010; for reviews).
One of the defining characteristics of repressors is that they report low levels of subjective distress during potentially stressful situations although they exhibit high physiological and behavioral arousal. This “repressive dissociation” was noted in the original Weinberger et al. (1979) study and is a widely replicated finding (e.g., Derakshan and Eysenck, 1997;Lambie and Baker, 2003).
According to vigilance-avoidance theory (Derakshan et al., 2007) repressors have an initial rapid vigilant response triggering behavioral and physiological responses followed by an avoidance stage involving avoidant cognitive biases that inhibit the conscious experience of anxiety. Results from a fairly recent fMRI study were consistent with this theory, as the repressive coping style appeared to be associated with increased brain activity in response to threatening compared to neutral facial expressions at an automatic, non-conscious stage of information processing (Paul et al., 2012).
Similar to repressive coping, alexithymia is a construct which involves difficulties in expressing emotions. Individuals high on alexithymia have difficulties distinguishing emotions from bodily sensations (see Lumley et al., 2007, for a review). Unlike repressive coping which is often seen as a defense, alexithymia is fundamentally a developmental disorder. It literally means “no words for emotion” (Sifneos, 1972). According to more recent formulations of this construct, individuals high on alexithymia are seen to have deficits in cognitive processing and emotional regulation (Taylor et al., 1997).
It can be concluded that both repressive coping and alexithymia are associated with deficits in emotional processing. Both constructs have produced large bodies of literature (see Lumley et al., 2007; Myers, 2010, for reviews). Although it has been suggested that repressive coping and alexithymia are related constructs (Bonanno and Singer, 1990; Lane et al., 2000) and that individuals who possess a repressive coping style will also be high on alexithymia, this prediction has not been systematically investigated before this study.
Using the Weinberger et al. (1979) classification, it can be predicted that repressors will score high on alexithymia…
…The current study demonstrated the predicted disassociation between an independently-rated interview measure and questionnaire measure of alexithymia, similar to previous findings on repressors’ childhood experiences (Myers and Brewin, 1994; Myers, 1999;Myers et al., 1999). These results also provide further evidence of repressors’ avoidance of negative information regarding the self…
…In summary, this study has identified a link between repressive coping and alexithymia.
1. Myers, L. B., & Derakshan, N. (2015). The relationship between two types of impaired emotion processing: repressive coping and alexithymia. Name: Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 809.