What Is Apathy?

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What Is Apathy?

Apathy involves a lack of interest in different aspects of life, including normal daily tasks and social activities. It is often seen in varying degrees in healthy people, but it is also a symptom of a number of different mental health conditions including depression.

The origin of the term apathy comes from a form of the prefix a—meaning "without," and the Greek pathos meaning "emotion, feeling, suffering." Thus, apathy was originally defined as freedom from suffering. Sometime in the 18th century, the meaning changed to a sense of being without emotion or feeling—indifference, especially to matters that are important or appealing.

Apathy is characterized by feelings of indifference and lack of emotion. The term is often used to describe a lack of caring or concern, but in mental health contexts, this loss of interest in different aspects of life events is often a sign of a condition.

Types

In a 2019 study published in the journal PLOS One, researchers identified and described distinct subtypes of apathy: 

  • Emotional apathy, characterized by a lack of both positive and negative emotions
  • Behavioral apathy, characterized by a lack of self-initiated behaviors
  • General apathy, characterized by less motivation, poor emotional responses, and lack of social engagement

Research suggests that apathy and anhedonia are closely linked, with people experiencing higher levels of apathy also reporting more anhedonia.

Two other forms of apathy that people may experience are:

  • Bystander apathy: This is related to the bystander effect, a phenomenon in which people witness someone else in need of help, but do nothing to intervene or offer assistance. There are many reasons why people may not take action in these situations, including indifference or apathy to the other person's plight.
  • Compassion fatigue: Sometimes people care initially, but become overwhelmed or physically and emotionally exhausted. This leads to a decreased ability to feel compassion or empathy for others.

Symptoms

Some signs of apathy include:

  • Difficulty completing everyday tasks
  • Feelings of indifference
  • Lack of emotion
  • Lack of interest in activities
  • Lack of motivation to accomplish goals
  • Low energy levels
  • Reduced participation in activities
  • Unemotional in response to both positive and negative events

Apathy may often be a symptom of depression, but the two are not the same thing. Depressive disorders are categorized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and have specific diagnostic criteria and symptoms.

Related Symptoms

Apathy is also often comorbid with other symptoms of depression including anhedonia and lethargy.

  • Anhedonia: The root words of anhedonia are the prefix an-, meaning "without," and the Greek hedone, meaning "pleasure." Thus, it means being in a state where you don't enjoy things you usually like to do. It is similar in some ways to apathy, but apathy is broader in scope than anhedonia.
  • Lethargy: Lethargy can be a state of body or mind or both. In both cases, the core component is slowness or sluggishness. Being unusually drowsy, tired, or fatigued can be aspects of lethargy.

Causes

Most people experience feelings of apathy from time to time. It is when this apathy is persistent and affects many different areas of life that it becomes a significant problem. 

Some different conditions that may cause apathy include:

  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Fronto-temporal dementia
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Schizophrenia
  • Stroke

When apathy is chronic and severe, it can interfere with many different areas of life. It can make it hard to perform well at work, disrupt social relationships, and even make it difficult to do basic daily self-care tasks. 

Research suggests that apathy is common, by some estimates affecting more than 10 million American adults.

Diagnosis

Your doctor will ask questions about how you are feeling, your behaviors, and how you are functioning in different areas of your life. Your healthcare provider will also ask you questions about:

  • Any decreases or lack of motivation
  • Any changes in thoughts, moods, or behaviors
  • How these changes are affecting your quality of life

In some cases, your doctor may also perform a physical exam or order lab tests to rule out other medical conditions that might be contributing to your symptoms.

Your doctor or mental health professional may diagnose you with an underlying mental health condition that is causing your symptoms. While it is not a formally recognized disorder recognized in the DSM-5, some experts argue that a set of symptoms called "apathy syndrome" may present in a variety of neuropsychiatric disorders.

Treatment

Treatments for apathy depend on the underlying causes. People may be able to manage general feelings of apathy through lifestyle changes and self-care, but symptoms caused by underlying medical or psychiatric conditions need to be addressed by your healthcare provider. For many conditions, this may involve medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of the two.

For apathy caused by progressive neurodegenerative disorders, your doctor may prescribe medications to try and address these symptoms.

Medications

Examples of medications that may be used to treat conditions that feature apathy as a symptom include:

Psychotherapy

Your doctor may also recommend psychotherapy when apathy is related to a condition such as depression or anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one approach that addresses the underlying thoughts and behaviors that may contribute to feelings of indifference and poor motivation.

Coping

There are also some self-help steps you can take that may help you overcome feelings of apathy:

  • Set small goals. Taking on too much and then failing to finish tasks can leave you feeling defeated and unmotivated. Instead, focus on accomplishing smaller tasks that are more manageable.
  • Break up large projects into small steps. It's easy to feel overwhelmed when you are faced with a big project. By tackling just a small part of the project each day, you can make progress toward a goal even if you are struggling with feelings of apathy.
  • Watch for triggers. Notice if there are certain situations or stressors that leave you feeling apathetic. Removing the obstacles that are making you feel unmotivated can help you feel better able to find inspiration.
  • Change your routine. Sometimes the daily grind can leave you feeling uninspired. Look for ways to break out of your regular routine, even if these changes are relatively small. 

Finally, don't be afraid to ask for help. Supportive friends and family can help you when you are feeling unmotivated and having their support may help spark your interest. Reaching out to your doctor or a mental health professional can also help you find a treatment approach that will work for you.

If you or a loved one are struggling with apathy, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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Article Sources
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  3. Chase TN. Apathy in neuropsychiatric disease: Diagnosis, pathophysiology, and treatment. Neurotox Res. 2011;19(2):266-78. doi:10.1007/s12640-010-9196-9