Effect of alexithymia on the process and outcome of psychotherapy: a programmatic review

Psychiatry Res. 2011 Nov 30;190(1):43-8. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2010.04.026. Epub 2010 May 14.

Abstract

Most psychotherapeutic approaches assume that individuals have some access to their emotions. Thus, patients who are unable to identify, differentiate, and articulate their emotions present therapists with a difficult challenge. Such patients may suffer from alexithymia. Despite much attention in the clinical literature, research on alexithymia in the treatment setting has been sparse. Thus, many of the assumptions about psychotherapeutic treatment of alexithymic patients remain untested. This article summarizes findings from a series of studies that examined the effect of alexithymia on various aspects of the psychotherapeutic enterprise. Findings indicated that alexithymia has little effect on patients' treatment preferences, yet there was some tendency for alexithymic patients to prefer group therapy. However, alexithymia was associated with poor outcome in both traditional psychodynamic psychotherapy and supportive therapy. This negative effect was found in individual and group psychotherapies. In the context of group therapy, higher levels of alexithymic features elicited negative reactions from one's therapist, which partially contributed to the poor outcome experienced by such patients. Finally, the negative reaction that therapists had toward patients with high alexithymia appeared to be in response to the lack of positive emotion expressed by these patients. Clinical implications and ideas for future research are considered.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Affective Symptoms / psychology*
  • Affective Symptoms / therapy*
  • Humans
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales
  • Psychotherapy / methods*
  • Treatment Outcome