The way human beings express emotion varies dramatically from person to person. With some people, one glance at their face and you understand what they are feeling. With others, their face offers few if any clues as to what they’re feeling.
Sometimes an underlying psychological or neurological condition can affect your ability to show emotion in recognizable ways. This condition is called blunted affect.
If you have a blunted affect, it can affect your personal and professional relationships, so it’s important to understand what it does and doesn’t mean.
Read on to understand what it means when you have a blunted affect.
“Affect” is a psychological term. It refers to the appearance of emotion through tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures, and body language. People with blunted affect don’t express emotions as obviously as most people do.
If you have a blunted affect, your outward appearance seems to suggest that you aren’t feeling strong emotions, even when you’re talking about emotional experiences. In other words, there’s a mismatch between what you’re feeling and what other people may think you’re feeling.
Blunted affect is different from emotional blunting. When you experience emotional blunting, you aren’t feeling your emotions very strongly. You may even feel emotionally numb. It’s possible to have blunted affect (little appearance of emotion) with or without emotional blunting (not feeling emotions).
How much emotion people display is on a continuum:
- Flat affect. People who have a flat affect show virtually no outward evidence of any emotion.
- Blunted affect. People who have a blunted affect show very little outward emotion.
- Constricted affect. People who have a constricted affect show some emotion but less than most other people show.
People with blunted affect don’t appear to be feeling much emotion. When they communicate, others might notice:
- the pitch of their voice doesn’t rise or fall very much when they talk about something emotional
- their facial expressions don’t change when they talk about emotional matters
- they don’t move their hands and arms a lot as they communicate
- their posture and body language doesn’t reveal very much about what they’re feeling
- they might avoid making eye contact
Blunted affect is a symptom of several disorders. To prevent blunted affect, you must prevent or seek treatment for the underlying disorder that causes it.
If the disorder is successfully treated, it may be possible to increase your emotional expressiveness. For some people, however, the difference in emotional expressiveness may be permanent.
Blunted affect is a symptom of several disorders. That means the disorder prevents or reduces your ability to function the same way other people do. In the case of blunted affect, these disorders may decrease your ability to express emotion:
Schizophrenia is a mental health disorder that can cause people to experience hallucinations, delusions, and thought patterns that distort reality. One of the possible symptoms of schizophrenia is an inability to show or express emotion.
All of the study participants reported having the same feelings, but many of the people with schizophrenia had facial expressions that didn’t match their emotions. Those with blunted affect only showed emotion during 2.7 seconds of the film, whereas others displayed emotional expressions for around 22.3 seconds.
Autism spectrum disorders
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are developmental disorders that make it difficult to interact and communicate with others. Autistic people often have limited interests, and they may repeat certain behaviors.
One of the most widely recognized symptoms of ASD is a mismatch between feelings and facial expressions, gestures, and body language. People with autism often speak in a tone of voice that doesn’t rise and fall with changing emotions.
Parkinson’s disease is a neurological disorder that affects the ability to control physical movements. As the disease progresses, those affected may lose control of the muscles that enable them to smile, frown, or knit their brows together to show displeasure.
Parkinson’s can also affect speech, so that one’s voice no longer changes in tone to reflect shifts in their emotions.
A number of conditions can diminish your emotions — sometimes to the point that you may not feel very much at all. These conditions include:
traumatic brain injury behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia
- post-traumatic stress disorder
- bipolar disorder
These disorders don’t necessarily cause you to lose the ability to express emotion. They limit the range and intensity of the emotions you can feel at a given time. In other words, they cause emotional blunting, not blunted affect.
The decrease in emotions may come from the disorder itself or from the medications used to treat it.
Diagnosing blunted affect can be tricky because how individuals express emotion can vary widely from culture to culture, family to family, and person to person.
Doctors, psychologists, and other health professionals use
Finding help for blunted affect
If you need help finding information, resources, or assistance for yourself or someone else dealing with blunted affect, these organizations may be a good starting place:
- RA1SE. This research project offers resources for individuals and families finding out about schizophrenia.
- Parkinson’s Foundation. This foundation provides a helpline, webinars, podcasts, and local chapters to help people with Parkinson’s disease.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The
CDCcurates a list of organizations that can help you with educational services, financial resources, assistive technology, and other information for people with autism spectrum disorders.
Because blunted affect is a symptom of an underlying disorder or of a medication for a disorder, doctors usually treat the disorder.
There’s some evidence that treating the disorder may improve the ability to express emotion somewhat, but blunted affect is sometimes permanent.
Blunted affect is a decreased ability to express emotion through your facial expressions, tone of voice, and physical movements. Schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorders, and Parkinson’s disease are all associated with blunted affect.
Blunted affect doesn’t mean you aren’t feeling emotions, it just means you don’t show what you’re feeling in ways other people can easily recognize.
Blunted affect is different from emotional blunting. If you’re experiencing emotional blunting, your ability to actually feel emotions is diminished, often by depression, PTSD, certain kinds of dementia, traumatic brain injury, bipolar disorder, or one of the medications you’re taking.
If you’re experiencing blunted affect or emotional blunting, it’s important to talk to a doctor or mental health professional because both of these conditions can make it more difficult to maintain healthy personal and professional relationships.
Treating the underlying disorder may help you express more of what you’re feeling.