Apathy describes an absence of feeling or emotion.
This indifference can affect your motivation and leave you feeling detached from the world. You might:
- stop caring about everyday tasks, hobbies, or personal interests
- struggle to show interest and enthusiasm in your personal relationships
- feel indifferent to spending time with others
- experience very little emotion or changes in mood
Most people experience apathetic feelings from time to time, especially during times of stress.
But persistent apathy can affect your relationships, everyday life, and overall well-being. It might also happen as a symptom of a number of medical and mental health conditions, which could get worse without treatment.
Apathy mainly involves a general indifference and lack of motivation to do anything at all.
You might also notice:
- anhedonia, or a loss of passion or pleasure for the things you usually enjoy
- trouble handling your usual responsibilities or the activities of daily life
- difficulty feeling and expressing any emotions
- loss of interest in social activities or events
- a tendency to spend more time by yourself
- difficulty planning or solving problems
Apathy can show up in all parts of your life. It can also have something of a snowball effect.
Consider this example:
Lately you have trouble getting out of bed. You feel like you’re just going through the motions of life, and you can’t muster up the energy to care about anything. This slowness and lethargy often make you late for work. Eventually, your supervisor lets you know you’re on probation: Another late arrival or absence will get you suspended. “Whatever,” you think. “It doesn’t matter anyway.”
If you work in education, healthcare, or other caring professions, you might realize it’s become harder to empathize with patients and students, or care about their needs in the same way you used to.
Instead of putting energy and compassion into your work as you once did, you might simply get through each day by doing no more than strictly necessary.
Types of apathy
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- Behavioral apathy. You’re less likely to feel motivated or get started on goal-directed activities (chores, school or work assignments) on your own.
- Social apathy. You’re less likely to engage with other people or show interest in their feelings
- Emotional apathy. You feel very little emotion. You might feel indifferent to the things happening in your life and may not care if you do or say something that upsets someone else.
Persistent apathy will likely involve signs from all these categories.
Apathy may not always have a clear-cut cause, but it can happen as a symptom of many different neurological and psychiatric conditions.
Conditions that can involve apathy include:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- major depression
- persistent (chronic) depression, also called dysthymia
- frontotemporal dementia
- Huntington’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- progressive supranuclear palsy
- vascular dementia
Experts believe dysfunction in certain areas of your brain can cause apathy.
Research from 2011 links lesions in the frontal lobe of the brain to symptoms of apathy. More recently, researchers have found evidence to connect apathy to two key brain regions, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and ventral striatum, along with other frontal and middle regions of the brain.
Apathy could also happen as a response to traumatic or stressful circumstances.
The American Psychological Association describes apathy syndrome as a pattern of emotional indifference that might develop in survivors of catastrophe or people held as prisoners of war.
After surviving a disaster or other trauma, detaching emotionally might seem like a helpful way to protect your well-being and prevent further distress. As a result, you might find it difficult to connect with others or access and express your feelings.
Burnout and emotional exhaustion can also contribute to apathy.
Teenagers trying to establish a sense of self and narrow down their future goals might experience apathy as they try out and discard identities and interests that don’t feel quite right. This apathy can relate to:
- frustration with not being able to make all of their own choices
- boredom with a daily life that feels unexciting
Shifting hormones and brain development can play a part in teen moods and thought patterns, but long-term emotional detachment and apathy can suggest a more serious concern, just as it would for people of any age.
Experts acknowledge apathy as a key feature of many different conditions, but there’s no official clinical diagnosis of apathy.
When ongoing feelings of apathy begin to affect your day-to-day life and relationships, a therapist or other mental health professional can help narrow down the cause by identifying other mental health symptoms you experience.
Your therapist will ask about things like:
- changes in mood, motivation, and energy
- how you feel about your personal relationships
- changes in your relationships
- changes in your emotional and mental health
- current life events
- changes in your life circumstances
They can also help you explore any underlying factors that might contribute to apathy.
In terms of neurodegenerative conditions, healthcare professionals use four criteria to measure apathy:
- Lack of motivation. You feel less motivated for no clear reason.
- Behavioral, thinking, and emotional changes. You have little interest in connecting with others, spending time in contemplation, or performing daily tasks.
- The impact on quality of life. These changes in energy, emotions, and behavior begin to negatively affect your life, work, relationships, and overall wellness.
- Other conditions do not cause these changes. Apathy doesn’t relate to another mental or physical health concern or substance use.
If you’ve had these symptoms for 4 weeks or longer, a healthcare professional may recommend tests to help rule out neurodegenerative conditions.
These might include:
- blood tests
- neuropsychiatric testing
- mental status exams
- genetic tests
- neurologic exams
- brain imaging
Treatment for apathy will generally depend on the cause.
If apathy relates to a mental health condition or present (or past) challenges in your life, therapy offers a safe space to talk through what you’re experiencing and explore strategies to navigate those difficulties.
A therapist can help you trace apathy back to potential causes, like a major loss, disappointment, or personal setback.
Support from a therapist can also have benefit for trauma recovery. Learning new ways to cope with distress can help you make changes that reboot your interest in life.
While therapy can’t directly treat symptoms of conditions like Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease, support from a trained therapist can still help you cope with mood symptoms and manage the changes that come with progressive conditions.
The Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve any medications to specifically treat apathy. Medications can treat some conditions that involve apathy, though.
The medication your doctor or psychiatrist recommends will depend on the most likely cause of persistent apathy. A few possibilities include:
- cholinesterase inhibitors like donepezil (Aricept), galantamine (Razadyne), and rivastigmine (Exelon), which can help with dementia
- antidepressants like paroxetine (Paxil), sertraline (Zoloft), and bupropion (Wellbutrin, Zyban)
- cerebral circulation and metabolism stimulants that treat symptoms of stroke
- dopamine stimulants like ropinirole (Requip), which can help with Parkinson’s disease
- antipsychotic medications that treat schizophrenia
- stimulants like methylphenidate (Ritalin), pemoline (Cylert), and amphetamine), which may help apathy that has no known underlying cause.
Experts continue to explore other potential treatments, including:
- Repetitive transcranial stimulation or transcranial direct current stimulation. Repetitive transcranial stimulation and transcranial direct current stimulation are painless treatments that involve a brief, low-voltage electric current applied across the forehead to stimulate the brain.
- Cognitive stimulation therapy. This approach involves participation in group games and other activities to help stimulate brain waves.
- Music and art therapies. Both music and art can help people get in touch with emotions. These approaches may help boost positive feelings, motivation, and reward for people who enjoy art and music.
While many people find therapy and medication helpful, there are also some things you can do on your own for relief.
Trying new things can be tough when you already feel unmotivated. Just keep in mind it’s always OK to start slow.
Identify new sources of joy
When nothing in life seems to matter, it never hurts to consider whether your interests and passions have shifted.
People change over time, and apathy can happen when the work or hobbies you used to enjoy no longer challenge or stimulate you.
If your days pass by in a gray fog, consider adding some color and vibrance by:
- visiting a new restaurant
- taking a long walk (or drive) somewhere you’ve never visited
- spending time in nature
- trying a new type of physical activity, like rollerblading, bicycling, or paddleboarding
Tip: Aim for smaller, manageable changes, rather than trying to refresh your entire life at once.
Take care of your needs
Burnout and overwork can drain your energy and lead to feelings of apathy.
It’s not always possible to change your career or cut back on the hours you work. But if you often find yourself pushing past the point of exhaustion, building time for yourself into your routine can make a difference.
Try to make sure you:
- eat balanced meals and stay hydrated
- get enough sleep
- spend time with friends and family on a regular basis
- have some time to unwind most evenings
- get some sunlight or fresh air most days
Try a digital disconnect
Your own efforts — whether that’s wearing a mask or trying to reduce your carbon footprint — might seem to do little to brighten the bleak future you envision. You might begin to wonder why you should care when no one else seems to.
Getting some space from distressing news and events, not to mention the arguments scattered across your social media feeds, can help — especially when you refocus the energy you have on the things (and people) you value most.
Open up to loved ones
Describing apathy to people who haven’t experienced it can be hard — you might worry “Yes, I love you, but right now I just don’t care” won’t hit quite the right notes.
But a supportive network of friends and family could help you begin to regain some interest in life, so it’s worth trying to put your (lack of) feelings into words. Plus, letting your loved ones know the lack of motivation and emotion isn’t personal can help.
Sharing what’s on your mind could also help ease overwhelm, and you might notice it gradually becomes easier to access your emotions and get motivated.
Apathy can feel like a void, an absence of the things that give life meaning. But it does not have to last forever.
A therapist or doctor can help determine the underlying cause and offer guidance on next steps.
If you find yourself with little energy and motivation and feel like nothing matters anymore, reaching out to a therapist can be a good option. Apathy can improve with time and the right kind of support.