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Apathy: symptoms and causes of this feeling

Apathy: symptoms and causes of this feeling

February 21, 2024

Most of us have ever been demotivated, not wanting to do anything despite having to do it . Although we do and do what we have to do, we do it with a very low level of motivation, without illusion or interest, almost as if we were robots.

This kind of everyday experiences are examples of one of the most unpleasant feelings: apathy . In this article we will see what exactly are your psychological bases and the causes why they may arise.

Concept of apathy

Apathy is a condition or state of lack of motivation or of interest for the different aspects of life, usually associated with a state of discomfort or despair. There is an indifference on both cognitive and affective levels to most stimuli, and the desire to act is conspicuous by their absence.

On the other hand, the main characteristics of this symptom are affective flattening or blunting, lack of perseverance and the reduction of self-generated thoughts and behaviors.

Thus, not only the initiative is lost to a greater or lesser degree, but the linking of events with emotions happens at a much lower level. This can cause that the person decreases his performance and level of effort in order to perform different types of behavior, which in turn gives feedback to the demotivation of the subject. When apathy is given to a maximum degree in which it does not allow us to act normally, making it difficult to make decisions or making it impossible to start or continue carrying out tasks, it can be called abulia.

Apathy can be found primarily as a syndrome without there necessarily being an associated disorder . However, as a general rule it is considered a symptom indicative of other mental and physical disorders.

Possible causes of apathy

Apathy can have a lot of different causes, both biological and environmental .

Biological causes

At the cerebral level, the existence of a correlation between the presence of apathy and alterations in the connection between frontal lobe and basal ganglia has been shown, which explains the difficulty in connecting emotion and thought, as well as the reduction in the behavioral initiative . Another remarkable association with apathy occurs in the presence of lesions in the dorsolateral prefrontal and associative areas . These lesions can explain the appearance of apathy in various physical and mental disorders, such as dementias.

Another possible cause can be found in the consumption of substances with psychoactive effects, which by modifying the transmission of neurotransmitters can alter the normal functioning of the brain. For example, the excessive consumption of cannabis can cause the one known as amotivational syndrome , characterized by the presence of apathy, decreased memory, and reduced impulse and self-directed activity. Something similar happens with typical antipsychotics, which by reducing the dopaminergic activity of the entire brain cause not enough dopamine to circulate through the mesocortical path which can cause the increase or generation of negative symptoms such as praise and apathy.

Environmental causes

At an environmental level, apathy has been found in people subjected to constant stress or to exposure to aversive stimulation . The absence of a sufficient positive reinforcement may also end up generating a deterioration in the ability to be interested in the medium. The existence of defenseless attitudes and depressive thinking schemes, with a negative view of the self, the world and the future, also contributes to eroding the mood and motivation of the person, causing apathy and even apathy.

Another element linked to apathy is the tendency to generate hard-to-reach goals that exceed one's ability to carry them out and that often lead to frustration .

Some associated disorders

As we have seen, apathy it is a frequent symptom of different disorders both organic and psychological. Next we will see some.

1. Depression

One of the disorders in which abulia is most frequently seen is depression, in which there are different cognitive biases that make the subject see the world, their own future and themselves in a hostile and negative way. The despair and discomfort generated can lead to feelings of apathy, being in fact one of the common symptoms that can help to make the diagnosis.

  • Related article: "Are there several types of depression?"

2. Dementia

In this type of disorders apathy has a clearly organic etiology, being generated by the degeneration of brain structures or ways previously mentioned.

  • You may be interested: "Types of dementia: forms of cognition loss"

3. Anxiety, stress and negative or traumatic experiences

The wear and tear caused by the continued experience of a state of tension can generate the presence of apathy, be it linked to a specific aspect of reality or at a general level. Situations from which we can not escape and which generate despair and feeling of lack of control they usually generate a certain apathetic state if they are maintained over time.

4. Anemias

The absence in the body of different nutrients such as vitamins or glucose can generate cognitive and behavioral alterations , including apathy. This anemia can come from poor diet or metabolic changes.

5. Infections and serious diseases

Different infections and diseases can generate states of apathy in the subjects who suffer from them, both due to organic causes such as the degeneration of brain structures and the fact that suffering from them can be a serious psychological blow that ends up generating apathy. Examples of this are cancer or HIV infection.


Apathy is a symptom whose treatment will depend to a great extent on the aspects or disorders that cause it . However, at a general level, different strategies can be established.

In psychological therapy

In therapy, the apathetic subject will benefit as a general rule from those strategies that help him generate plausible objectives and that are achievable, at first with some ease and with time progressively requiring more effort. Cognitive restructuring It can also be effective in the face of modifying the possible dysfunctional beliefs that may be affecting the subject's vision with respect to the world and with respect to himself, as well as therapies such as Rehm's self-control, in order to set realistic and achievable goals. . In general, increasing self-esteem and carrying out pleasant tasks is also very useful.

Changes in lifestyle

Since stress and negative experiences may be other than the causes of apathy, time management is also essential . For this reason it is necessary to contribute to realizing specific schedules that leave space for relaxation, as well as the realization of different exercises and techniques that facilitate it.

A healthy lifestyle It is very helpful when it comes to improving symptoms. The control of the feeding can allow to supply different deficits that can help to generate the apathy. In the same way, physical exercise is known to help generate endorphins so that their performance can be useful both in this aspect and when it comes to reducing the level of anxiety and frustration that may be behind some cases.

Social support and reinforcement of the initiative by others is also a great help in overcoming states of apathy, especially in the face of disorders such as depression. The use of psychoactive substances, especially of the depressant type, can have detrimental effects and help maintain and even generate apathy. In this way it must decrease and control the consumption of this type of substances .

Intervention with psychotropic drugs

At the pharmacological level, it may be useful to use different anxiolytic or antidepressant drugs , like the SSRIs. Other drugs that help improve the circulation of neurotransmitters such as noradrenaline and dopamine are also effective. All this as long as it is prescribed by a specialist.

Bibliographic references:

  • American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Fifth edition. DSM-V. Masson, Barcelona.
  • Marin, R. S. & Wilkosz, P. A. (2005). Disorders of diminished motivation. Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation, 20 (4).
  • Levy, R. & Dubois, B. (2006). Apathy and the functional anatomy of the prefrontal cortex-basal ganglia circuits. Cereb. Cortex; 16 (7) .: 916-28.
  • Santos, J.L. (2012). Psychopathology. CEDE Preparation Manual PIR, 01. CEDE. Madrid.

How to Deal With Apathy : Psychology & Mental Health (February 2024).

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