From ActuallyAutistic Wiki

Something happens and I'm head over heels

— Tears for Fears, "Head Over Heels", 1985

There are two distinct phenomena called alexithymia. One is an issue with discerning which emotions you feel, known as cognitive alexithymia. The other is the inability, or greatly reduced ability, to viscerally feel emotions in the first place, known as affective alexithymia. (Perhaps it should be renamed to something like visceral hyposensitivity or emotional hyposensitivity, for accuracy and symmetry.)

Various images showing outlines of a stylised human body. Within each one, different body parts are shown as blue (cold), red (hot), or black (neutral), symbolising how different emotions make you feel. I'm not clear on whether this involves your unconscious sending adrenaline to specific parts of your body somehow, but that's what it looks like. For example, anger apparently energises you, especially in your hands, while depression apparently does the opposite, especially to your arms and legs.

If you think these body maps of emotions make sense and aren't especially noteworthy, then you probably don't have either alexithymia. If you think they're helpful at explaining which emotion you're feeling, then you probably have cognitive alexithymia. If you think they're some kind of alien-looking thing that someone just made up, then you probably have affective alexithymia.

Cognitive alexithymia[edit]

(Hi, I might have this. I tend to feel generically "good" or "bad" and I have to think really hard and use context clues to narrow it down to something more specific. But other times I feel good/bad without noticing until later, like if someone points it out or I start behaving in a more extreme way.)

-- Unregistered user

Affective alexithymia[edit]

If you have affective alexithymia, you still have emotions, you just don't consciously feel them as if they're happening to your body. You still react to them physiologically, and can infer from that what you must be "feeling". This is similar (and possibly even related)[1] to how you infer things like when you're hungry if you have interoceptive hyposensitivity. Perhaps it is most accurate to say that people with affective alexithymia experience emotions unconsciously, but are consciously "blind" to them.

For example, I don't listen to depressing music anymore, because I don't want to be depressed. I can describe depression as not wanting to do anything, feeling that nothing matters so there's no point to anything, and not especially wanting to go on. I don't like how that feels, but as with all emotions, I don't literally feel it in my body.

Conversely, listening to upbeat music I like makes me want to bop along with it, which I can similarly infer means that it makes me happy. Ambient music can calm me down. But again, I don't feel these emotions in my body. Music never gives me chills.

I can read someone's hate speech against a minority group I'm in (and look forward to the day it's no longer uncritically published in national newspapers), notice that I'm stimming, and realise that I should stop reading it as it's clearly making me very uncomfortable. I just don't feel uncomfortable. I have to infer it, even if I'm having such an extreme emotional response that it's making me stim. This might explain why people commended my "patience" trying to educate bigots. Thankfully, I've since learned to stop reading such things, for the sake of my mental health.

When I think about leaving the house, my anxiety makes me use the bathroom more due to my fight-or-flight response, but again, that's not a feeling, it's an observation. The closest I get to feeling an emotion is getting a very specific not-quite-headache when I cry.

When I see a cute creature, I involuntarily smile. This isn't part of my masking. I have no poker face. When I watch good comedy, I involuntarily laugh and, if it's good enough, even sweat. These are pleasant "feelings", and I really should seek them out more often. I just don't feel them in my body. I can tell what emotion I'm experiencing the same way you can tell which emotion I'm experiencing, by looking at my involuntary actions. I can feel myself smiling or laughing, and as they say, it's good to laugh.

In stark contrast, when most people talk about their feelings as if they're happening to their body, this is apparently a rare occasion on which they're not speaking metaphorically.[2][3][4] Even the word feelings was, in hindsight, a subtle clue that they're literally felt. Similarly, when people talk about feeling something viscerally, they're talking about literally feeling it in their viscera — their internal organs.

Shockingly, some — perhaps even most — people might be able to literally feel emotions as some or all of the following:

  • Blood running cold
  • Burning desire
  • Burning rage
  • Butterflies in their stomach
  • Colour draining from their face
  • Falling in love, head over heels
  • A feeling in their bones
  • Going weak in their knees
  • Goosebumps (which you can see forming)
  • A gut feeling
  • Heartache
  • Heartwarming
  • A heavy heart
  • Lighthearted
  • A lump in their throat
  • Muscles tensing
  • Pressure
  • A punch to the gut
  • A shiver down their spine
  • A sinking feeling
  • Skin crawling
  • Stomach churning
  • A weight off their shoulders

Some people might even see red when angry or feel blue when depressed, perhaps suggesting a mild emotional-visual synaesthesia.

I always assumed people used to think the heart generated emotions because they could feel it pumping faster when they're excited. Perhaps there's more to it than that, and it does feel to a lot of people like their heart is where they feel things like love. No wonder it's the symbol for love.

Alas, my weekend spent researching alexithymia online didn't yield many conclusions. I'm not entirely sure if what I experience counts as that or not. But terminology isn't the point. If this is how you perceive your emotions, I'd like to reassure you that you're not alone.


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