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April 14, 2011 Volume 32, No. 27

Affectionate communication can help ease relationship anxiety


Personality trait stymies emotional understanding

Alexithymia is a personality trait that prevents people from sharing or even understanding their own emotions.  Every person has some level of alexithymia — previous studies estimate 8 percent to 10 percent of the population have trouble relating to, or become anxious around, other people or avoid forming relationships.

But a University of Missouri researcher’s latest study indicates that affectionate communication, such as hugging, could help those who have high levels of alexithymia lead more fulfilling lives.

Colin Hesse, an assistant professor of communication in the College of Arts and Science, said alexithymia is often found with other conditions on the autism spectrum, as well as post-traumatic stress disorders. Studies have shown that alexithymia has been related to eating and panic disorders, as well as substance abuse.

“We know how important it is for people to empathize and be open with the people around us, because that makes someone more competent as a communicator,” Hesse said. “We still need to study the best approaches, but we believe that affectionate communication ranging from hugs, touching, or even the posture taken during communication can make a positive impact, even if it only relieves anxiety.”

In the paper “Affection Mediates the Impact of Alexithymia on Relationships,” published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, Hesse and Kory Floyd of Arizona State University surveyed 921 people and measured shared affection, attachment levels, and the number of close relationships. The researchers found that even though alexithymia was negatively related to forming relationships, giving and receiving higher amounts of affectionate communication lessened the trait.

While alexithymia is still relatively new to the scientific world, some scholars believe it may eventually be added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. As a communications expert, Hesse is studying the ways alexithymia sufferers can ease the physical and mental costs of the affliction and succeed at relationships. Hesse’s previous work has shown that affectionate communication releases hormones that relieve stress, and his future studies will be applicable to all forms of communication.

“Because there is so much gray area with alexithymia, the potential for what we learn could have benefits for people with conditions such as emotional distance and autism spectrum disorders,” Hesse said. “I want to help alexithymia sufferers understand the undercurrent of the messages sent from other people.”