Self-Expression: The Feelings & Trauma Connection

January 15, 2024

Written by

Claudia Black Young Adult Center

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By Stephanie O’Brian, Ed. S., LPC

Alexithymia. You may have never heard of it, but roughly 10% of the population experiences it. Have you ever had trouble expressing emotions or known someone who has? This may be the cause.

What Is Alexithymia?

Alexithymia’s meaning is defined by Medical News Today (MNT) as “a construct relating to a difficulty experiencing, identifying, and expressing emotions.” Though not a diagnosis, this label helps professionals communicate common symptoms to other practitioners as well as to their patients. Having a term can help assure you that you are not alone and that others also wrestle to label their feelings and struggle with self-expression. Research shared by Neuroscience News found that 7% of females and 13% of males have alexithymia.

If you experience the following symptoms, MNT suggests you may have alexithymia:

  • Trouble expressing emotions to others
  • Difficulty identifying your own emotions
  • Confusion connecting emotions with bodily sensations
  • Trouble picking up others’ emotions, including verbal and nonverbal cues
  • Rigid and rational thinking, void of emotional insight
  • Inability to handle stress healthily
  • Can appear to be humorless, distant, or insensitive
  • Less giving, perceptive, or thoughtful than others
  • Low satisfaction with relationships
  • Limited imagination

“Sometimes I work with children and adults who can’t put words to their feelings and thoughts. It’s not that they don’t want to; it’s more that they don’t know how,” states Dr. Deborah Serani in Scientific American. The lack of self-expression can be a handicap when it comes to recovery — as well as seeing the need for professional help in the first place. 

The lack of self-expression can be a handicap when it comes to recovery — as well as seeing the need for professional help in the first place. 

Why Is the Ability to Explain Feelings So Important? 

For those who can feel their emotions and express them freely, it is almost impossible to imagine the inability to do so. Some of the richness of life itself is rooted in emotion. Thus, emotional numbness and blindness associated with alexithymia can make life seem unsatisfying. Alexithymia can also complicate the road to recovery.

One of the key components to the therapeutic process relating to trauma is the ability to name your emotions, find patterns, recognize triggers, and grow healthier responses. If you are unable to recognize your emotions and attach them to your actions or physiological responses (like increased heart rate, agitation, etc.), it is more difficult to navigate the healing process. 

Another aspect of healing is the ability to flourish in your familial and social life. Having alexithymia not only affects your relationship with yourself and your own self-expression, but it also makes it extremely difficult to create deep and lasting relationships and emotional bonds with others. A key component to any relationship is shared expression and mutual emotions. If you are unable to do this naturally, relationships become strained

A key component to any relationship is shared expression and mutual emotions. If you are unable to do this naturally, relationships become strained. 

Why Is It So Hard to Explain My Feelings?

Though there is still much to be discovered about alexithymia, researchers from Stanford University found that “emotional neglect, emotional abuse, and physical neglect in childhood are significant predictors of alexithymia.” It is important to note that not every childhood trauma leads to alexithymia, nor does every person struggling with alexithymia have childhood trauma. Emotional trauma and feelings go hand in hand. 

“It’s very challenging for those who struggle with alexithymia to cope with coexisting psychological disorders because their innate vulnerability to understanding themselves and others complicates recovery,” Serani says. Having a history of trauma increases the chance of developing schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, and other psychological disorders

There are daily disciplines you can practice to help yourself navigate through your alexithymia. Researchers suggest the following: 

  • Journaling – This daily practice of writing your thoughts and attempting to identify feelings and patterns can help you become more observant of yourself as well as those around you.
  • Reading fiction – Novels are full of characters and storylines filled with emotion. By immersing yourself in literature, you can broaden your exposure to the experiences of others through the stories.
  • Expressive arts – In an effort to step outside your comfort zone and expand your tendency for rigid thinking, participating in an expressive art (acting, dance, music, etc.) is a way for you to get more in tune with your emotional side.
  • Relaxation training – Practicing mindfulness and guided imagery can assist you in identifying your feelings and developing your self-expression.
  • PsychotherapyGroup therapy, as well as skill-based treatments, can assist you in a professional setting to become more aware of yourself and others.

If you ever have asked yourself, Why is it so hard to explain my feelings?, we can help. At Claudia Black Young Adult Center, we are passionate about helping you become your best advocate. Our caring, trained professionals will not become weary or irritated by your inability to label your emotions or express yourself, but will instead partner with you to help you understand and connect with your inner emotions. Through our experts trained in healing trauma at its core, we want to assist you in reclaiming your life and potential for true, flourishing, deep connections with others, and genuine satisfaction and contentment. Reach out today to learn more.