Emotion regulation has been suggested as a transdiagnostic construct across a wide variety of psychological disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, depression and borderline personality disorder. Alexithymia is a personality trait that is characterised by an inability to identify, describe or regulate one’s own emotions, leading to difficulties understanding and expressing emotions. Alexithymia has been strongly linked to anxiety disorders due to the emotional dysfunction causing intense anxiety that the individuals then cannot regulate. This difficulty in regulating anxiety can lead to a dependence on extreme emotion regulation strategies, such as high-risk activities or self-harm. The anxiolytic effect of exercise is well documented and has been suggested to have an increased emotion regulation function for alexithymic individuals. Extreme endurance running is a form of exercise that also shares characteristics with self-harm in that it involves an inherent aspect of self-induced pain. Woodman and Welch (2020) recently provided initial support for the emotion regulation function of extreme endurance running, and the underlying role of pain, for individuals high in alexithymia.
In this PhD, we aim to further the understanding of the anxiolytic effect of endurance running on alexithymic individuals and the role of pain within this relationship. We also aim to investigate the similarities between pain induced by self-harm and pain during an endurance run, and the respective emotion regulation functions of each.
We are currently reassessing our proposed methodology due to the impact of COVID-19. However, we are planning to use a combination of qualitative and quantitative methodologies over three or four studies to gain meaningful insight into this phenomenon.
This PhD will provide a valuable contribution to the understanding of emotion regulation in populations at risk of turning to maladaptive coping strategies, such as self-harm, to regulate their emotions. If running can provide a low-risk and accessible emotion regulation strategy for alexithymic individuals, it may help reduce the prevalence of high-risk strategies that could result in severe injury or even death.