Apathy: symptoms and causes of this feeling

Most of us have already been demotivated, does not want to do anything despite having to do it. Although if we take action and do what we have to do, we do it with very little motivation, without enthusiasm or interest, almost as if we are robots.

These types of everyday experiences are examples of one of the most unpleasant feelings: apathy. In this article, we will consider exactly what is their psychological basis and the causes for which it can occur.

Apathy concept

Apathy is a condition or state of lack of motivation or interest by different aspects of life, usually associated with a state of discomfort or hopelessness. There is both cognitive and affective indifference to most stimuli, and the desire to act shines in its absence.

On the other hand, the main features of this symptom are emotional flattening or stuffing, lack of perseverance and the reduction of self-generated thoughts and behaviors.

Thus, not only is the initiative lost to a greater or lesser degree, but the connection between events and emotions occurs at a much lower level. This can cause that the person decreases their performance and level of effort in order to do different types of behavior, which in turn feeds the demotivation of the subject. When apathy occurs 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 performing tasks, it can be called abulia.

Apathy can be found primarily as a syndrome without necessarily having an associated disorder. However, it is generally considered to be a symptom indicative of other disorders both mental and physical.

Possible causes of apathy

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

biological causes

At the cerebral level, there is a correlation between the presence of apathy and alterations in the connection between the frontal lobe and the basal ganglia, which explains the difficulty in connecting emotion and thought, as well as the reduction in l behavioral initiative. Another notable association with apathy occurs in the presence of dorsolateral prefrontal lesions and associative areas. These injuries can explain the appearance of apathy in various disorders, both physical and mental, such as dementia.

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, excessive cannabis use can lead to it the so-called amotivational syndrome, Characterized by the presence of apathy, decreased memory and reduced momentum and self-directed activity. Something similar happens with typical antipsychotics, which by reducing dopaminergic activity throughout the brain they cause insufficient circulation of dopamine by the mesocortical route which can cause the increase or generation of negative symptoms such as allergy and listlessness.

environmental causes

At the environmental level, apathy has been observed in people subjected to constant stress or exposure to aversive stimulation. The lack of sufficient positive reinforcement can also end up leading to a deterioration in the ability of the environment to care for it. The existence of helpless attitudes and depressive thought patterns, with a negative view of oneself, the world and the future, also helps to erode the person’s mood and motivation, causing apathy and even bullying.

Another element related to apathy is the tendency to generate goals that are difficult to achieve, which exceed one’s own ability to achieve them and that they usually lead to frustration.

Certain associated disorders

As we have seen, apathy it is a common symptom of different disorders both organic and psychological. Below we will see a few of them.

1. Depression

One of the disorders in which abulia can be seen most frequently is depression, in which different cognitive biases occur which make the subject see the world, his own future and himself in a hostile and negative way. The hopelessness and discomfort generated can lead to feelings of listlessness, in fact being one of the common symptoms that can help diagnose.

    2. Dementia

    In this type of disorder, apathy has a clearly organic etiology, being generated by degeneration of brain structures or the routes mentioned above.

      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, either related to a specific aspect of reality or to a general level. Situations from which we cannot escape and which they generate hopelessness and feeling out of control they tend to generate a state of apathy if they are maintained over time.

      4. Anemia

      The absence in the body of various nutrients such as vitamins or glucose it can generate cognitive and behavioral alterations, Including apathy. This anemia can result from a poor diet or metabolic disorders.

      5. Serious infections and illnesses

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


      Apathy is a symptom treatment will largely depend on the aspects or disorders causing it. However, at a general level, different strategies can be established.

      In psychological therapy

      In therapy, the apathetic subject will generally benefit from those strategies which help them generate plausible goals that are achievable, at first with some ease and over time gradually requiring a little more effort. Cognitive restructuring it may also be effective in modifying possible dysfunctional beliefs that may affect the subject’s view of the world and self, as well as therapies such as Rehm’s self-control, so that they can be fixed, realistic and achievable goals. . Generally increasing self-esteem and performing enjoyable tasks is also very helpful.

      Lifestyle changes

      Since stress and negative experiences can be other causes of apathy, time management is also essential. For this reason, it is necessary to contribute to specific times that give rise to relaxation areas, as well as to the realization of different exercises and techniques that facilitate it.

      A healthy lifestyle it is very helpful in improving symptoms. Food control can compensate for various deficits that can contribute to generating listlessness. Likewise, exercise is known to help generate endorphins so that performing it can be helpful both in this regard and in lowering the level of anxiety and frustration that can be at the root of some cases.

      Social support and empowerment by others are also of great help in overcoming states of apathy, especially in the face of disorders such as depression. The use of psychoactive substances, in particular of the depressant type, can have harmful effects and help to maintain and even generate apathy. This way the consumption of this type of substance must be reduced and controlled.

      Intervention with psychotropic drugs

      At the pharmacological level, the use of different anxiolytic or antidepressant drugs, like SSRIs. Other drugs that help improve the flow of neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine 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, RS and Wilkosz, PA (2005). Disorders of decreased motivation. Journal of Cranial Trauma Rehabilitation, 20 (4).
      • Levy, R. and Dubois, B. (2006). Apathy and functional anatomy of the prefrontal cortex-basal nuclei circuits. Cereb. Cortex; 16 (7): 916-28.
      • Sants, JL (2012). Psychopathology. CEDE PIR preparation manual, 01. CEDE. Madrid.

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