Objective: The aim of this study was to examine whether deficits in emotion regulation manifest as a relative lack of congruence between subjective reports of emotion and autonomic activity when confronted with stressors.
Methods: A pool of 830 university students was screened using the Toronto Alexithymia Scale-Revised for deficits in emotion regulation associated with alexithymia. Those meeting a criterion floor cutoff and other inclusion criteria composed the experimental group and were matched on age, gender, and race to those in the control group. A final sample size of 94 students (47 in each group) was presented with experimental stressor tasks (the Stroop task and a conversation task) in counterbalanced order while autonomic activity data (heart rate and skin conductance) and subjective reports of negative affect were continuously collected during baseline, stressor exposure, and recovery periods. Data were analyzed to determine relative differences in congruence between the autonomic and subjective measures.
Results: Data suggested that participants high in emotion regulation deficits reported consistently higher subjective negative affect relative to those without such deficits throughout baseline, stressor exposure, and recovery periods. However, autonomic activity remained nearly identical in both groups across phases. Explicit tests of group differences in congruence between autonomic and subjective emotion measures also partly supported evidence of subjective hyperarousal.
Conclusions: Deficits in emotion regulation, as evidenced in those with high levels of the alexithymic trait, appear to manifest as chronically elevated subjective negative affect relative to autonomic activity regardless of the level of environmental demands. Theoretical and clinical implications of these findings are discussed.