Even as I a child I had difficulties controlling my impulses and my behaviours, “I was into everything”. I did not use much forethought in decisions making and would generally react and always be after something that I wanted desperately that very moment. Now in fact!
I believe I had sugar addiction, and chocolate and playing, and girl chasing addictive behaviours way before I ever got near alcohol in my early teens, with a six month, and quite disastrous period of poker machine gambling in between. And of course you couldn’t get me off the “Space Invader” machine. I just couldn’t get enough of anything, ever. Always wanted more, more and some more. My mother would call for me to come home in the darkening hours of evening. I had to be scraped off the playing fields in order to come home. Exhausted.
So why this constant overdoing of everything!!?
Why couldn’t I stop once in a while, ponder the consequences of my decisions, employ some, goal-directed, action-outcome type of thinking?
Following on for our very recent blog which described the neural mechanisms implicated in negative urgency we now look at at an article which attempts to bring together some of our most consuming research interests by attempting to explain whether there is a link between emotional processing deficits (alexithymia) negative urgency and dysregulated behaviours.
This study (1) looked at whether whether negative urgency (distress-based impulsivity) would be the link in relationship between alexithymia and dysregulated behaviors.
Dysregulated behaviors have been defined as behaviors that are difficult to control, and often result in functional impairment for the affected individual (Selby & Joiner, 2009).
An inability to understand affective and physiological experiences inherent in alexithymia might prompt individuals to engage in maladaptive behaviors in an effort to regulate emotions. One type of behavior linked to alexithymia is binge eating. Wheeler and colleagues (2005) found that alexithymia was positively correlated with binge eating in a sample of females.
Carano and colleagues (2006) found that alexithymia was positively correlated with the severity of binge eating behaviors. Additionally, Speranza and colleagues (2007) found that alexithymia predicted eating disorder treatment outcome in a three year prospective study meaning high levels of alexithymia can interfere with treatment response even more than the actual severity of the presenting problem.
Taylor and colleagues (1990) found that 50% of substance dependent males admitted to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program were characterized as alexithymic. Similarly, Haviland and colleagues (1988) found that approximately 50% of individuals diagnosed as alcohol dependent were characterized as alexithymic. These numbers are significantly greater than the reported prevalence of alexithymia in the general population, which has been estimated to fall between 10 and 15% (Rybakowski et al., 1988; Parker et al., 1989), and suggests that alcohol and drug abuse is another example of a maladaptive behavior that may be used to modulate negative affective states when one is incapable of doing so in an adaptive way.
Loas and colleagues (1997) conducted a one year follow-up on individuals admitted to a psychiatric facility for alcohol treatment. Results suggested that individuals who remained abstinent from alcohol use one year post-treatment had
significantly lower scores on alexithymia measures.
“Why does the lack of understanding and expression of emotions have such a powerful influence over dysregulated behaviors?”
Why do individuals with high levels of alexithymia who experience negative affect seem to engage in dysregulated behaviors so frequently, while other individuals may simply cry, ruminate, or develop vegetative symptoms of depression?
Is negative urgency (Whiteside & Lynam, 2001; Cyders, Smith, Spillane, Fischer, Annus, & Peterson, 2007) the mechanism through which these behaviors are developed and sustained? It may be that the relationship between alexithymia and behavior is explained by a tendency on the part of individuals with high levels of alexithymia to act rashly in an attempt to immediately reduce psychological and physiological sensations associated with negative affect (negative mood, negative emotions, anxiety etc).
Negative urgency could be thought the mechanism that drives dysregulated behaviors in individuals who experience difficulty recognizing and expressing their emotions.
The authors (1) concluded that when faced with negative affect, many individuals are able to recognize and process their emotions adaptively. However, if people are not able to identify or describe their emotions (the very definition of alexithymia), our results suggest that this confusing affective experience may be quite upsetting (or unpleasant) and could lead to negative urgency, or a tendency to act rashly when they experience any type of negative affect.
High alexithymia individuals appear to be highly motivated to alleviate negative affect, regardless of the consequences. It may be that the emotional confusion inherent in alexithymia prompts individuals high on negative urgency to engage in dysregulated behaviors, by acting out either
against themselves or others.
As we mentioned in our previous blog emotional processing deficits are common in addiction and in other dysregualted behaviours and these deficits may not recruit the goal-directed parts of the brain. They do not guide action or choices effectively. As a result they manifest in perhaps crude, undifferentiated or processed forms as distress signals instead and recruit more limbic, motoric regions of the brain. Hence they are not used to anticipate future, long term consequence.
We disagree that it is not simply negative affect that prompts negative urgency but rather the chronic stress dsyregulation underpinning the manifestation of negative affect.
We are simply adding that as addiction becomes more chronic, so does stress and emotional distress and this appears to lead to a distress-based “fight or flight” responding to decision making. Addicts increasing appear to recruit sub-cortical or limbic areas in decision making and this is prevalent in abstinence as in active using. It is the consequence of chronic emotional and stress dysregulation.
References for this blog
Fink, E. L., Anestis, M. D., Selby, E. A., & Joiner, T. E. (2010). Negative urgency fully mediates the relationship between alexithymia and dysregulated behaviours. Personality and Mental Health, 4(4), 284-293.