Emotional Awareness and Alexithymia: Emotional Processing and Regulation in Adolescence
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The adolescent transition involves a number of changes that for many adolescents result in increased negativity, heightened emotional reactivity, and risk for internalizing symptoms. The purpose of the present set of studies was to examine the role that emotional awareness has in relation to emotion regulation and to subsequent mood symptomatology in adolescence. The first study tested the hypothesized relationship between emotional awareness and emotion regulation, specifically, that emotional awareness is a necessary precursor to adaptive regulation efforts. This study examined the direct and indirect effects of emotional awareness on internalizing symptoms by exploring the extent to which certain emotion regulation strategies influence this relationship. The purpose of the second and third studies was to examine the association between emotional awareness and emotion regulation as measured by changes across three emotional response domains: 1) physiological arousal, 2) self-reported experience, and 3) observed expression during an ecologically valid emotion elicitation task. Participants in these studies were identified as alexithymic or non-alexithymic. Alexithymia involves difficulty identifying and describing emotions and has been used to classify individuals with extremely low emotional awareness. The second study examined the effects of alexithymia on the three emotional response domains in adolescents. Because of the high prevalence rates of alexithymia during adolescence, it could be an important vulnerability factor to help explain increases in internalizing symptoms during the adolescent transition. The purpose of the third study was to examine how patterns of decoupling between physiological arousal, self-reported experience, and observed expression were related to depressive and anxiety symptoms in alexithymic individuals. Overall, findings confirmed that emotional awareness is an important precursor to adaptive emotion regulation efforts. In addition, emotion regulation emerged as a more proximal mechanism in the development of depressive and anxiety symptoms in individuals with low emotional awareness. At a theoretical level, this research has guided our understanding of emotional processing and regulation. At a practical level, results from this program of research will help guide intervention and treatment approaches for adolescents with low emotional awareness.