Overcaffeinators May Have More Trouble Expressing Their Feelings

I'm feeling lukewarm
Eliminating caffeine—and this fine beverage—is a tough, yet not insurmountable task. Julius Schorzman, Wikimedia Commons

If you often have trouble with finding the right words to express your feelings, empathizing with other people’s emotions, or waiting for your next caffeine fix, you may be alexithymic.

Alexithymia, derived from Greek for “no words for feelings,” is a personality trait characterized by difficulty recognizing and showing emotions. “Someone with alexithymia might say they have a stomachache when they are actually experiencing grief,” wrote Mike Lyvers in an email to Popular Science.

Lyvers is a psychologist at Bond University and the author of a recent study that found a link between coffee guzzling and alexithymia. It’s unclear what genetic or environmental factors cause a person to have alexithymic tendencies, but researchers are fairly confident it’s the character trait that creates a caffeine-craver, and not the other way around.

Lyvers and his colleagues surveyed 106 university students about their caffeine consumption habits and had them complete a series of questionnaires that measured their susceptibility to anxiety and alexithymia, among other psychological indicators.

They found students who scored high on the test for alexithymia consumed almost twice as much caffeine per day as others. Alexithymic students on average ingested around 500 milligrams of caffeine daily, which is equivalent to drinking three and a half cups of coffee. The study speculates their desire to get wired may stem from the cognitive-enhancing properties of caffeine — but at the potential cost of heightened anxiety, which a lot of alexithymics suffer from.

Alexithymia is associated with a cohort of other behaviors, some of which are less benign (and less tasty) than coffee drinking.

“A significant subset of alcoholics and drug addicts are alexithymic, and this seems to be associated with worse treatment outcomes,” said Lyvers. He thinks that if scientists gain a better understanding of how and why alexithymia is correlated with mind-altering substances like alcohol, drugs and caffeine, then maybe we can find more successful ways to treat addiction in alexithymics.

Lyvers says he is now working on a study of caffeine expectations and alexithymia, which could provide insight on what drives individuals who struggle with expressiveness to reach for that extra cup of coffee.