Emotions go unnamed for some with eating disorders

Some women with anorexia or bulimia flub identification of facial expressions due to condition called alexithymia

Facial expressions

LOST FOR WORDS  A personality trait called alexithymia makes it hard for people with and without eating disorders to describe others’ facial expressions, like the ones shown, new research suggests.


uh LEHK suh THY mee uhn.

An inability to find words to describe one’s own feelings.

Mental health workers regard alexithymia as more akin to a personality trait than to a mental disorder. Many people with psychiatric conditions such as autism spectrum disorder and panic disorder — characterized by physical symptoms with emotional causes — also display alexithymia.

Researchers are finding that alexithymia has the same effect on people with and without mental disorders and that it undermines the ability to describe others’ feelings as well as one’s own. A study appearing online January 21 in Royal Society Open Science found that nine of 21 young women with eating disorders had difficulty recognizing others’ facial emotions and that this characteristic was probably related to alexithymia, not some inherent feature of anorexia or bulimia. The researchers also looked at 21 women who had alexithymia but no psychiatric disorders and found that seven had comparable problems identifying others’ expressions of happiness, fear and other emotions.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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