Emotional Blindness: Alexithymia

Today I had an episode. It feels like the word episode needs to have some embarrassed looking quotes either side of it, however I shouldn’t feel ashamed. A huge amount of trauma surfaced, and I had a dissociative (derealisation / depersonalisation attack). If you’ve not had one, then it’s almost impossible to explain… please Google it if you want to know more.

I had a bit of a breakthrough talking to someone at my local Mind, both during and after the episode. I feel that what I learned isn’t common with people with mental health problems, psychiatrists, psychologists or counsellors! Indeed all the professionals listed, seem to ignore the blatant issue I realised existed. I believe the issue I realised, is a lynchpin to understanding why some people struggle with mental health, and others don’t (I exclude bipolar, schizophrenia and major delusions from this, as they seem to have different causes that seem to be neurological and / or genetic).

The issue is to do with not having an emotional early warning system.

Early Warning System Graphic

I believe there are two main reasons why people don’t have an emotional early warning system (EEWS):

  1. Lack of self-awareness
  2. Neurological deficit

If your EEWS is due to a lack of self-awareness rather than it being a neurological deficit, then you can go for counselling, practise meditation, learn how to reflect more, become more emotionally literate. This will enable you to have greater awareness (look up Johari Window for more about personal blindspots). The lack of self-awareness is the only type of EEWS deficit that almost all professionals and self-help gurus, think exists! Here’s the thing… I believe most nervous breakdowns and most mental health problems (excluding the previous conditions I mentioned) are due to the second type of EEWS deficit. This could be part of Asperger’s syndrome or Alexithymia. This can NOT be fixed with therapy, self-awareness, or meditation… it’s a literal EEWS deficit in the brain… it’s hardwired. Your self-esteem will get seriously damaged if a therapist or other professional starts on some wise-ass path of thinking improving your self-awareness will fix this hardwired problem… it NEVER will. It’s impossible… it’s less fixable than visual blindness at this time (i.e. some visual blindness can be fixed, but this can’t).

Why does alexithymia or a lack of a EEWS cause so many breakdowns? Well think of your emotions like a number chart from 0 to 10. Zero is no anger, or no fear, or some kind of low level neutral emotional state. Ten is an extreme emotion like rage, ecstasy (verging on delusional happiness), severe anxiety which will often lead to fight, flight or freeze (physical paralysis).

Today I put so many pieces of understanding that I’ve learned over 20 years. When I went for counselling, I was always stumped by the question “How are you feeling?”. I couldn’t access my emotions. I later realised I was mostly only aware of emotions that were at level 7 or so. Learning to be more self-aware, or learning to be more in touch with my emotions, didn’t give me access to lower level numbers. If your EEWS deficit is due to lack of self-awareness, then these techniques would lead to your EEWS improving, and thereby you’d detect lower numbers the more you became self-aware.

Example of the chart for anger (other emotions can also be graded in this way).

10 = rage

9 = extremely angry

7 = angry

6 = very annoyed

5 = annoyed

3 = agitated

2 = irritated

1 = mildly irritated

0 = serenity

The earlier your EEWS, the sooner you detect an emotion. Some people naturally detect their lower level emotions. So for example, someone might realise they are irritated with someone (level 2 of anger). Once you realise, you can then walk away or tell the person you would like to discuss the issue later (or other coping strategy). The lower level the emotion, the easier it is to utilise techniques to modulate the emotion (either ramping it up or down, as desired). I believe that people who don’t have nervous breakdowns or panic attacks, are naturally good at spotting mild anxiety, or mild sadness. They then naturally regulate these emotions quite easily, and so never get into a severe state. These people don’t need to learn self-awareness, they don’t need to go to mindfulness classes, they don’t need to go to counsellors… to be rude about these people, they are smart arses! If you ask these people how to be calm like them, they will tell you some bullshit techniques, that they don’t even use, or that only work for level 3 emotions… while you are struggling with level 7 emotions! These people are the worst people to ask for help! They won the lottery from a genetic and neurological perspective. These sorts of people often become counsellors and life coaches, because they think they have all the answers… but they don’t… they are just naturally that way, and don’t have any answers. Only people who have been through the more severe emotions, and learned certain coping strategies specific to the higher levels can give you, a) the empathy, and b) and techniques that will actually work with those higher levels.

Most emotional wellbeing courses, counselling sessions, or mindfulness teachers, will all give you kitsch techniques, that don’t work if your EEWS is neurologically hardwired. You’ll end feeling like crap going on these courses!

The only techniques that will work if your EEWS deficiency is hardwired are:

  1. Listen to friends or people close to you when they say “You seem stressed”, or “Are you feeling ok?”. They are acting like a better version of your EEWS (Emotional Early Warning System!)
  2. Try a three minute awareness scan (this won’t be easy but gives more clues)
    1. One minute: body scan for physical sensations
    2. One minute: observer your thoughts
    3. One minute: tap into your emotions in this present moment
  3. A device that probably hasn’t been invented yet. One that measures your cortisol levels, muscle tensions, heart rate, skin moisture, adrenaline levels, or possibly also a brain scan, live. These live measures would then have some kind of artificial intelligence algorithm trying to assess your emotional state. If you seemed in a heightened emotional state (say a level 3 or 4) you would hear in an ear piece, or some other form of feedback, that you are at level 3 etc. So you might be told “You appear to be slightly irritable” or “You appear to be mildly anxious”.

The reasons these methods are so useful, is because you can improve your EEWS. The problem is that you are still fighting a neurological deficit, so you are like someone learning techniques to overcome dyslexia… the dyslexia can never be cured, but techniques can almost fix it. Or like using a sat nav if you have a bad sense of direction (again some people truly have a neurological deficit when it comes to sense of direction, and others could learn to have a better sense of direction, and again people who are skilled at having a sense of direction will not believe that other people can have a genuine neurological deficit regarding sense of direction, and indeed the worst people are those that had a bad sense of direction that wasn’t due to a neurological deficit, but rather due to not having learned the required skills. These people will swear blind, that people with a genuine neurological deficit can ‘learn’. This is like saying to a blind person “You just need to look properly!”. Counsellors and psychologists say this equivalent phrase all the time, with people who are struggling with a poor EEWS.

So to conclude, if you are someone who seems to get sudden mental health episodes ‘out of the blue’, like a major panic attack that blindsides you, or a major breakdown that you didn’t see coming, then the chances are your EEWS is not good. You need to work out if your poor EEWS is due to lack of self-awareness, or due to a genuine neurological deficit. If you have a deficit, then you’re going to have to ‘Jedi it on up’ and almost achieve the impossible to somehow gain a good EEWS. I can’t wait for a decent version of the device to be made that can help people with a deficit. There are some poorly made devices that are mostly scientifically shoddy, however I’m talking about a device that can give people who struggle a decent EEWS.

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