Emotion recognition has been a commonly seen deficit among individuals with eating disorders, but new research covered by Science News on Jan. 22, delves into the root cause of this deficiency. As opposed to concluding that this lack of perception is a product of the eating disorder, the investigators suggest that it is the presence of a comorbid condition.
Specifically, the investigators attribute these emotional difficulties to a non-clinical condition called alexithymia. Alexithymia refers to the inability to understand and appropriately describe one’s own and others’ emotions. It is considered to be a personality trait rather than a mental disorder, but is often concurrent among individuals with autism spectrum disorders, panic disorder, and substance use disorders.
Several studies have supported difficulties with emotion recognition among individuals with eating disorders and even non-clinical samples with high levels of eating disorder symptoms. However, there is still inconsistency in the literature and the cause of this difficulty to recognize emotions has not been understood.
The current study tested the hypothesis of whether emotion recognition deficits were actually due to the dual presence of alexithymia with an eating disorder diagnosis. Twenty-one individuals with an eating disorder and 21 participants with no psychiatric disorder were matched on the presence of alexithymia, so that the two groups had an approximately equivalent prevalence of alexithymia. Both groups were then tested using facial stimuli and follow-up questions about the type of emotion displayed by the different faces.
The findings supported the authors’ hypothesis, in that alexithymia and not eating disorders was found to be predictive of affective impairment. Both groups matched on alexithymia displayed equal levels of emotional impairment, and severe alexithymia was significantly correlated with emotion recognition deficits. Therefore, it appears that emotional impairment is due not to eating disorders or symptomatology, but to the presence of alexithymia. This could have been observed in eating disorder populations just due to a higher rate of alexithymia in clinical populations than in control groups.
Since it has been commonly thought that emotional dysfunction is a trait of eating disorder patients, this study turns that assumption on its head. More research will be needed to see if alexithymia differs among individuals with different types of eating disorders, but the current research sets the stage for a more critical assessment of emotional impairment in clinical populations.