Adaptive and maladaptive emotion processing and regulation, and the case of alexithymia

Georgia Panayiotou*, Maria Panteli, Elke Vlemincx

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


In this conceptual review, we discuss models of emotion and its regulation and identify a spectrum of processes that characterise adaptive adjustment to the affective environment. We describe a dynamic-phasic model of emotion processing and regulation, focusing on five stages: anticipation, response, recovery, habituation and rest as part of a cascade of responses to emotional challenges, as these become progressively expected, proximal, chronic or repeated. We argue for the need to investigate beyond simple reactivity to emotional stimuli, in order to understand mental and physical health conditions where emotional dysregulation plays a role. We propose that a hallmark of an effective and adaptive emotion regulation system is its flexibility, in the service of life goals and values. Consistent with McEwen’s model (1998, Stress, adaptation, and disease: Allostasis and allostatic load. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 840(1), 33–44), inflexible emotion regulation can lead to increased allostatic load, from frequent stress, inadequate reactivity, failed shutdown and habituation, which may result in physical and mental illness. Alexithymia exemplifies inflexible emotion regulation, with dysfunctions potentially across all stages of emotion processing, both psychologically and physiologically. These maladaptive processes and their consequence on allostatic load potentially explain the association between alexithymia and physical and mental illness.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)488-499
JournalCognition and Emotion
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • adaptation
  • Alexithymia
  • allostatic load
  • emotion
  • emotion regulation
  • self-regulation


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