• Kelly

Emotions...??? What are those and why do I have to have them?

If you're neurodivergent, it's likely that you're familiar with feeling like your emotions are confusing, overwhelming, or that you're not even sure you have emotions. This is such a common experience that we actually have a term for it - alexithymia.


Alexithymia is a difference in emotional processing that causes difficulty in identifying, describing, and expressing emotions. Sonny Jane Wise (@LivedExperienceEducator on Instagram), in their workbook The Neurodivergent Friendly Workbook of DBT Skills, describes this so well, saying that alexithymia can look like:


"- having trouble finding the right words to describe what you're feeling

- difficulty expressing emotions using verbal words

- difficulty discriminating between emotions and bodily sensations

- difficulty in identifying faces and facial expressions"


For myself, I always described this as not being able to "feel my feelings".


Many of us with alexithymia need to use alternative strategies to understand our emotions, such as identifying the physical sensations we feel in our bodies and then connecting this with a emotion label. An emotion wheel or feeling wheel can be incredibly helpful for this, and I especially recommend Lindsay Braman's Emotion-Sensation Wheel, which can be found on her website here: Emotion Sensation Feeling Wheel Handout by Lindsay Braman - LindsayBraman.com

A basic feeling or emotion wheel showing 7 different emotions in various colours similar to a pie graph. Each emotion category is broken down into secondary and tertiary emotion descriptors.
A basic feeling or emotion wheel showing 7 different emotions in various colours similar to a pie graph. Each emotion category is broken down into secondary and tertiary emotion descriptors.

This concept of emotions being associated with distinct bodily sensations is also backed by science! In a 2013 article published in the journal PNAS, Nummenmaa et al. asked over 700 participants to self-report the areas of their body where they experience increased or decreased activation. They used the results to create these fascinating body maps of different emotions:

A figure from Nummenmaa et al. (2013) published in PNAS showing "heat maps" of the body with warm colours indicating increased activation in those body parts and cool colours indicating decreased activation.
A figure from Nummenmaa et al. (2013) published in PNAS showing "heat maps" of the body with warm colours indicating increased activation in those body parts and cool colours indicating decreased activation.

(Find the rest of the article here: Bodily maps of emotions | PNAS with no paywall!)


The way I help clients with alexithymia connect with their emotions is by using mindfulness to pay attention to the sensations in the body when they have certain experiences. We then work to "audition" different emotion labels for these sensations to see what fits consistently over time. While there may be some general sensations associated with emotions, as noted in the above article, individual experiences may vary. For example, one person may experience anxiety as a rapid heartbeat, while another feels hot in their chest or face. Many neurodivergent folx also have difficulties with interoception - awareness of internal states - that further complicates even being aware of how your body feels!


Over time, having labels for your emotions makes them feel less unpredictable and scary so you can learn to treat them as what they are - messages from your brain and body that communicate something about how you are interacting with your environment or an unmet need. If you're interested in exploring this yourself and need some guidance along the process, please reach out!

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