Bring Up Alexithymia – What does it mean to be emotionally blind

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This last November, my boyfriend (now fiancé) and I celebrated our 10th year anniversary. This unmistakably leads most people to think that our relationship was always all kisses and roses, but the truth is that it has never been even close to that. Only in the last couple years has our relationship moved to a slightly more romantically inclined state. Here, let me explain, I’m not saying that he was being completely detached, uncaring or worse. He just seemed incapable of showing any signs of compassion (and no, this was no bull poop). It’s not because he didn’t want to make the effort or that he didn’t care. The reason was more likely related to the incomprehension of his feelings, and also mine for the matter. 

Feelings are complicated, but with years of practice most of us become experts in decoding their meaning. That training starts in our early years by trying to discriminate differences with physical cues like the curve of our lips, the arching of our eyebrows, the shape of our eyes, the minute twitching of our cheek, etc. After that learning stage is completed, we proceed to relate emotions to cues we’ve observed. This eventually becomes fine-tuned by the use of trial-and-error processes. We become so good at it that we even come to dismiss that some people might yet struggle with it, which is the case of people affected by Alexithymia, or emotional blindness. Alexithymia can literally be translated to “A lack of words for feelings (or emotions)”.

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In order to understand how these people may interpret emotions, we have to realize the intricate difficulties that lie behind interpreting emotions. You can actually observe the complicated nature of feelings by taking a look at scientific research exploring this topic. I may start by saying that even researchers have difficulty establishing a consensus on how many of them there are. For a very long time, we assume that there were only 8 distinct emotions: anger, fear, anticipation, trust, surprise, sadness, joy and disgust. More recently a study conducted by two researchers from the University of California, Berkeley (Alan S. Cowen and Dacher Keltner) have suggested that there may be up to 27 distinct emotions (see image below, for details). Surprisingly, they have come to exclude anger, trust, surprise (no word pun intended) and anticipation. They explained that those feelings might be different intensities of the newly considered distinct feelings. 

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Despite the difficulties demonstrated in academia for determining even the number of emotions, we still expect everyone to be geniuses at it. However, we have to open our eyes to the possibility that still about 10% of the population have drastic difficulties with both noticing or interpreting them. Alexithymic people are battling with more than just hurdles to describe feelings, they also suffer from impoverished dream recalling, emotion processing deficits, reduced expressivity of emotions, lack of daydreaming and/or fantasies and reduced sexual desire. Interestingly, I think that the reduced expressivity observed is actually part of a defence mechanism. I can imagine that having trouble identifying emotions may lead to many unsuccessful attempts in decoding emotion. This would in turn, drive people to react inadequately. As a need to save face in the future and they might decide to remain neutral in most circumstances. This would ensure that no insult, although inadvertently, could be done to the interacting participant.  

My personal involvement with Alexithymia is, as you may suspect, through the interaction with my fiancé, Manuel. Then again, I was not aware of this from the very beginning. It took me attending a course for my undergraduate degree to figure this out, which was about 4 years ago. I guess we could have called this serendipity, because meanwhile I was discovering this subject, an awareness of his lack of feeling surfaced. However, love relationships bring their lots of mystery. Manuel’s mystery was his exceptional ease at hiding his emotional deficits. Again, I don’t think it was voluntary. He wasn’t trying to be a manly man and bottling down his emotions. He just couldn’t understand his underlying motivation to avoid expressing emotions. It’s only in retrospect that I realized, I should have been able to point this out sooner. I remember one day when I was crying, I was completely devastated. I remember not knowing why I was even feeling that way. In this situation, you and I would think that Manuel would try as hard as he could to comfort me. He had another reasoning at that time; instead he proceeded to have a laugh. When we talk about what happened back then, we both cannot explain the reasoning behind this. However, my intuition is telling me that it must have been a manifestation of a deep uneasiness with the situation. I assure you that now, when it comes to comforting, he is acting like a perfect gentleman, well at least with me. Using a lot of compassion about his condition, I now inform him of the best approaches when my reactions become a bit too much for him.

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Full disclaimer: Manuel has never been formally diagnosed. Yet, we still have evidence supporting this statement. Manuel filled an online questionnaire about Alexithymia for which he scored high on most of its categories. The online questionnaire can be accessed through https://www.alexithymia.us/. But beware that this does not, by any means, replace a proper diagnosis made by a trained professional such as a psychologist, psychiatrist or physicians. So, if you believe you are affected by alexithymia and you feel as if it’s impacting your life for the worse, then you should definitely seek those professionals. 

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Coming back to Manuel, we did mention that he shows emotion processing deficits and reduced expression of emotions, but we haven’t talked about his experience with the other aspect of Alexithymia. If we examine the lack of daydreaming/fantasies, it manifested mostly in his inability to visualize a future with me, or any medium to long-term future for that matter. It really created some stress in the relationship, but we got through this by making an if-then statement, which I found he responds very well to. Without this push through in the form of communication (and a little leap of faith), we got through the point where the two of us agreed to get married later this year. As for the impoverished dream recalling, I can guarantee you that it couldn’t be further from the truth. He can recall dreams to such details that gets me envious of him. 

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As a bonus segment, I would like to share with you two memories where we could really notice some significant breakthroughs. About three years ago, I saw Manuel cry for the very first time. We were at his brother’s wedding and he was a groomsman, so these were obviously tears of joy. I just remember the feeling of joy and surprise I was experiencing seeing him like that. Even he could not even comprehend the full extent of his emotions at that moment. This has led him to be more interested in his feelings from this point on. At last, I want to share what I believe truly opened him up to the feelings of love. Four years ago, his brother got his first child, which meant that Manuel was becoming an uncle for the very first time. A little more than a year ago, that young niece went on to do the most precious thing. She looked in Manuel’s eyes and told him that she loved him. Manuel told me that it’s at that very moment that something switched inside of him and he felt this strong tug wanting him to express the same feeling back at her. That only would have been enough to make me the happiest girl. And, at my surprise, this change was not only directed at his niece, but at me too. Yes, he told me the three-word sentence (I love you) for the first time last year. Soon after these words were repeated once again, but this time, to his parents. 

I hope you have learnt a lot about Alexithymia and that you will be able to help others or yourself, whichever is appropriate. Remember that the difficulty brought on by this condition can be tackled using proper tools like communication as well as the openness to becoming more attentive to feelings. It is easy to dismiss emotions completely, exceptionally when it becomes so difficult and our efforts constantly end up hurting people that we care for. Still, with the right people you can find a safe way to develop a better understanding. We simply have to be true to ourselves and accept help when needed. 

I thank you infinitely for reading this post and if you would like to know more about the mysteries that surround us, please join my subscription list to keep up with my newest content. If you have any questions, please add them to the comment section and I’ll make sure to answer as soon as humanly possible.

Bring Up Fibromyalgia – When pain becomes an everyday occurence

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 I woke up this morning feeling normal. My brain was working properly, my body didn’t ache, and I did not feel one bit tired. But why am I fricking telling you this? Isn’t it normal? As in everyone should be feeling like this, right? I would be very happy to tell you that it’s truly routine, but I unfortunately don’t have this pleasure. What usually happens goes a bit more like the following: I wake up tired, most likely caused by my insomnia, my brain is foggy, and I start feeling some painful impulses in my body. All of this is triggered by a chronic muscular pain syndrome (CMPS) which could one day become fibromyalgia. The explanation behind the uncertainty resides in how I fulfill the diagnosis, or more accurately how I do not.

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Two years ago, I decided to schedule an appointment with my family physician to discuss some issues that concerned me. The main one was the almost sudden emergence of pain in parts of my body. It was always very localized, never widespread like a headache or a cramp. It felt like a burst of sharp electrical firing in places such as the side of my foot, my hip, the palm of my hand, the inside of my elbow, etc. I would describe the feeling to never spread more than one centimetre wide. The absence of reasonable explanation for the pain was making me worry.

After examination, my family physician concluded that it didn’t meet all the criteria necessary for a fibromyalgia diagnosis. Although she explained that the situation could develop further and worsen. If that is the case, there would be a strong chance that my condition would fulfill the last required criteria for fibromyalgia. She encouraged me to include physical stretching in my daily routine and to do some research (knowing that I am a trained physiologist) on CMPS and fibromyalgia. From her suggestion, I did some research. It was not only to familiarize myself with those disorders, but also to find more ways to help reduce the pain caused by CMPS. As for stretching, I am not proud to say that I didn’t follow her recommendation very strictly. I do stretch, but I am sadly not doing it every day. Most often it’s because I forget, or I don’t feel like it. However, the main reason is that it annoys me. I find it so boring that I feel it’s such an effortful job. I know, I know! I need it, but let’s just say that at this point I became really good at finding excuses for myself in order to avoid it.

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Turns out that the idea of stretching is not that far-fetched. All the research papers examined were praising its benefit in treating fibromyalgia cases. So, I am probably really doing myself some important disfavour by not enforcing the practice. The reasoning behind its efficiency is however unclear. We actually have no clue what might cause the symptoms seen in fibromyalgia. There are only theories. Some people support that it’s triggered by an overexcitation of the glutamatergic neuronal pathways, others support that it’s caused by communication issues between the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland. Even if we don’t know what is at the root of the disorder, researchers are all agreeing on one thing. Fibromyalgia is a centralized disorder, which means that the central nervous system is at fault. By central nervous system I mean everything ranging from the spinal cord to the brain. This central nervous system is being oversensitive, and we yet do not understand why.

I know! You get it! Both fibromyalgia and CMPS are causing pain (read Bring Up Pain, for more information). Here’s a twist, though, it’s doing way more than messing up with your body, it’s also messing up with your head. The constant sleep disturbances and memory dysfunctions are probably my biggest troubles. As I mentioned at the very beginning, I do experience insomnia which has become more and more regular in the last few years. Usually, as soon as I would feel insomnia settling in, I would grab some melatonin which would consistently improve my sleeping capabilities. However, starting two months ago, I began experiencing insomnia every night and this lasted for a bit more than three consecutive weeks. From that moment on, melatonin would not seem to be working anymore. In the best course of action, I could fall asleep by midnight (I usually go to sleep around 9:30 p.m.-10 p.m.) and at worst, by 4 a.m. That means I got on average a good 6–7 hours of sleep every night, which doesn’t sound that bad. That’s if we’re not considering that a good night’s sleep, in my case, usually lasts 9–10 hours. This means that, by the third week, I was in a clear sleep deficit state.

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Being sleep deprived does nothing good on the brain. It also seemed to worsen the memory dysfunction and the fatigue aspects of CMPS. Useless to say that trying to finish up my Master of Science in Physiology was challenging. For example, it took me two attempts to pass the mandatory course exams. The memory deficits were affecting me worse probably because I had learnt to strongly rely on it through many years spent in school. This has led me to develop severe performance anxiety that was best displayed in public speaking scenes. This was gut-wrenching since I loved public speaking, and still do actually despite the trouble. I would have taken twice, or even thrice, as much pain if it had meant retrieving my memory function and avoiding performance anxiety altogether. Now, I can’t even talk without stumbling on my words. It makes it seem as if I have no mastery of what I am introducing, and this genuinely pains me.

Oh well! I didn’t mean to be a drag. As far as I know, there is so much more you can learn about chronic pain syndromes and fibromyalgia. It is gaining awareness, but still, many ignore its impacts. This was my story and is by no means a complete overview of the chronic pain disorders. This was, however, a fair representation about my own experience with the disorder. I realize that my case is very mild, but some of you might not be as fortunate and thus my compassion goes to you. It is not easy for anyone to have to deal with such an awful situation, but luckily, we can find solace in knowing that we are not going through this alone. 

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Let’s also be conscious that there are quite a handful of promising treatments right now. There is much to be happy about. Additionally, if you really take care of yourself, you can seriously have some control over how worse it can get. That be yoga, meditation, stretching, antidepressants, marijuana (yes, that is correct!), acupuncture, diet change or others, it’s all yours to explore. I personally prefer yoga, meditation and diet change, or more specifically intermittent fasting (See Bring Up Intermittent Fasting). Despite not having had the pleasure to try acupuncture yet, I would definitely like to give it a shot someday.

I thank you infinitely for reading this post and if you would like to know more about the mysteries that surround us, please join my subscription list to keep up with my newest content. If you have any questions, please add them to the comment section and I’ll make sure to answer as soon as humanly possible.

Bring Up The Beginning – How it all started

I remember the night just before my first day of school, I was totally terrified. I had a nightmare that I was lost in the school and no one was willing to help me find my way back. They would instead ask me what was wrong with me. I was panicked. When I finally woke up, I unsurprisingly didn’t want to go to school. However, I have never mentioned it to my mother, since I knew what she would tell me. She would tell me to snap out of it and that I would have to go to school like any of my siblings. Let’s say that I never felt like there were any place for drama, or at least emotions, at home. So, I kept that detail for me.

Turns out maybe this dream may have been a warning for what was to come, but scientifically speaking it couldn’t. Reasonably speaking, it was probably only the expression of my worries. I always had trouble with changes and that was essentially an enormous one. There are probably multiple factors to account for my difficulties adapting to school. However, I think that the strongest factor was my emotional over-expressiveness. Difficulty controlling the expression of my feelings possibly made me a very easy target for intimidation. And so, by the middle of elementary school, I started getting bullied by a guy and that lasted through most of my high school years as well. This could probably have been enough for most people to become bitter about school and rebel against the institution, or, at the very least, produce a strong desire to quit attending school. Fortunately for me, this was far from the feeling I had toward school. 

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Let’s say that school was both a nightmare and my safe haven. Well, you may understand why this was a nightmare, but it isn’t all that clear why this was my very safe haven. You might think that home should have been my safe haven, but it wasn’t. At home, I never felt like I was doing enough. Everything I was doing was judged to be done badly. Additionally, things I was craving for like admiration or, at the very least, respect was nowhere to be found. On the contrary, at school, there existed both admiration and respect. I could make my teachers proud by using my knowledge to answer questions and when I answered correctly, they showed me praises. But moreover, there was no name calling or insults thrown. But sadly, I can’t say that all teachers were like that. I had one teacher in elementary school that picked on me. To this day, I regret not standing up to him, but what could I have done? I was only a kid.

Then again, most teachers were all very supportive, so by rules of generalization, I loved my teachers. Yet, what I like the most about school was its seemingly infinite source of information. Information that could potentially be knowledge. Knowledge was ultimately my escape. My escape from boredom, from loneliness, from intimidation and from injustice. As a kid, I perceived that knowledge could help solve all problems. With it, I could extrapolate answers to behaviours or to just any basic fundamental questions. My curiosity knew no boundaries and with curiosity arose multiple questions. School then became necessary and provided me with endless possibilities to see the world through another lens.

One question that I’ve had and that is now left mostly answered was the reasons behind my childhood harassment. I always wondered why children could be so hurtful and then I realized that one major difference between children and adults is their openness to differences. Pre-teenager and, to a lesser extent, teenagers have a strong desire to fit within a group (sense of belonging). They do it in such a way that their appearances, their thoughts, and their experiences must be kept as similar as to the rest of the gang. However, by the time they leave high school, they recognize that a quest for normality is vain and they have to develop a better awareness of themselves (identity). For example, the eight-year-old me talking science to classmates was probably interpreted as me pointing out what they ignored. This fact was enough to confirm that I didn’t fit in. Alternatively, adults realize that one human in its lifetime can’t learn everything the world has to offer. Most won’t feel offended or confronted by an individual possessing information that they don’t have.

Then, from my quest to gain knowledge came a natural appreciation toward science and eventually an admiration and a love for it. I was first introduced to science with a special book: a science encyclopedia for children. This book was lying in the bookshelves in my bedroom and since I had to stay in bed after waking up in the morning, I decided to open it. This book was perfectly designed and got me to be amazed by everything nature had to offer. Two articles really grabbed my attention. The first talked about the size of the largest mammal on Earth, the blue whale, which can measure up to three buses long. The second introduced the difference between the terms: storm, lightning, and thunder. 

I absolutely rejoice in acquiring knowledge, but acquiring it was only part of the joy it brought me. The most satisfaction I got was when I decided to share the knowledge. I genuinely thought that people would like to know everything as much as I did. Turns out this couldn’t be far enough away from the truth. It took me a few years to realize this. With this cluelessness came insults from my family and my friends telling me that I was a weirdo, that I talked too much, and that I was a big know-it-all. All that hurt led me to change my approach to science communication. With time I learnt that science can be communicated more easily to people that are truly interested and that interest is most often expressed through asking questions. If you pay attention to the questions, you can be there to answer them and thus communicating knowledge. My second realization is that too much science content on the internet right now is overly specific and needs previously acquired material to understand it. 

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I believe that this leads people to believe science is only accessible for educated people, but the truth is that everyone is doing science. Moreover, everyone is doing science every day. Your body is constantly doing chemistry by measuring blood sugar content and releasing corresponding levels of insulin. It is also doing physics every time you walk or run. It is also doing physiology whenever you experience pain or mathematics whenever you purchase something in a store. Science is not for an elite population; it’s for everyone. 

This is the reason Bring Up Science got created. My goal is to bring light to the science behind different elements of our life. From the first leaves in the trees in spring to the way we perceive pain. Science is a beautiful thing that everyone deserves to enjoy and that might just start with Bring Up Science. So, no matter where you are right now, what you’re doing or even if you know the fundamental principles of physics. What’s important is that you open yourself up to the amazing potential and accessibility of Science. It will make you appreciate life in a different perspective and maybe allow you to see all of yourself as a beautiful orchestra of science.

I thank you infinitely for reading this post and if you would like to know more about the mysteries that surround us, please join my subscription list to keep up with my newest content. If you have any questions, please add them to the comment section and I’ll make sure to answer as soon as humanly possible.