What Is Apathy?
Apathy is when you lack motivation to do things or just don’t care much about what’s going on around you. Apathy can be a symptom of mental health problems, Parkinson’s disease, or Alzheimer’s disease. It often lasts a long time. You may lack the desire to do anything that involves thinking or your emotions. The term comes from the Greek word "pathos," which means passion or emotion. Apathy is a lack of those feelings.
It isn't the same thing as depression, though it can be hard to tell the two conditions apart. Feeling "blah" about life is common in both conditions. It isn’t sadness or anger, either. Rather than feeling these emotions, you don't feel much of anything. Things that used to make you happy don't excite you anymore. You no longer feel motivated to achieve your goals.
Everyone loses interest in things at one time or another. But when it happens a lot, it can affect your relationships, your job, and your ability to enjoy life. Treatment can make a big difference, so talk to your doctor or a mental health professional to get the help you need.
What Is Avolition?
Avolition can look similar to apathy, but is more intense. Avolition is a total lack of motivation that makes it hard to get anything done. You can't start or finish even simple, everyday tasks. Getting off the couch to wash the dishes or drive to the supermarket can feel like climbing Mount Everest. You might not:
- Respond when friends call, text, or email
- Put in any effort at work or school
- Pay bills or take care of other everyday tasks
- Wash or groom yourself
Avolition is not a condition itself. It's most often a symptom of schizophrenia, a mental disorder that affects how you think, feel, and act. It can also be a sign of serious depression or a side effect of certain medicines. Some of the antipsychotic drugs you may take to treat schizophrenia can cause it.
Avolition could also be a symptom of:
- Bipolar disorder
- Persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia)
- Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PDD)
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Traumatic brain injury
- Alzheimer's disease
People who don't get enough mental stimulation can also have avolition. For example, you could get it if you sit alone in bed all day because of an illness. It could also happen to prisoners in solitary confinement.
If you don't get treatment for the problem that's causing it, avolition can affect every part of your life, from your relationships to your job.
What's the Difference Between Apathy and Avolition?
You might think of avolition as more of a behavior and apathy as more of a feeling (though it can affect behavior). The American Psychological Association (APA) defines apathy as a "lack of motivation or goal-directed behavior and indifference to one's surroundings." It defines avolition as "failure to engage in goal-directed behavior."
Sometimes you can recognize and change things in your life that are making you feel apathetic, such as an unsatisfying job or relationship. But with avolition, you may not even notice the symptoms are happening. A friend or family member might have to point them out to you. And you may not be able to change your behavior even if you want to.
Apathy Signs and Symptoms
A doctor might diagnose you with apathy if you're no longer motivated and you:
- Lack the effort or energy to do everyday things
- Depend on other people to plan your activities
- Have no desire to learn new things, meet new people, or have new experiences
- Don't care about your own problems
- Feel no emotions when good or bad things happen
To count as apathy, your symptoms must be serious enough or happen often enough to affect your social life, job, or other parts of your life. And they can't be due to drugs, alcohol, or any other substance you take.
A problem with areas in the front of your brain that control your emotions, goals, and behavior can cause apathy. It's often one of the first symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia, which damage the brain. Up to 70% of people with dementia have this loss of interest.
Apathy can also be a symptom of other brain disorders, such as:
- Brain injury from a strong hit to the head
- Parkinson's disease
- Huntington's disease
Before you can treat apathy, see your doctor for a diagnosis to be sure that’s what is causing your symptoms. Your exam may include:
- Full medical history, including any neurological or psychosocial conditions you’ve had
- Questionnaires that measure your motivation levels, personality, and behavior
- Imaging tests like MRI, CT, or PET scans to look for any changes in your brain
- Going over what medications you take, including antidepressants like SSRIs, that may cause apathy as a side effect
- Ruling out other psychiatric disorders whose symptoms may mimic apathy
While apathy can be hard to diagnose and treat, there are ways to manage it. Some people with Alzheimer's disease feel more motivated when they take drugs called cholinesterase inhibitors, such as donepezil (Aricept), galantamine (Razadyne), or rivastigmine (Exelon). Antidepressants don't seem to help, and they may even make apathy worse.
You can also try these tips to help you or a loved one manage apathy:
- Push yourself to get out and spend time with friends, even if you don't feel like going.
- Do things you used to love, like going to concerts or watching movies with loved ones.
- Take a music or art therapy class, which have been shown to help with apathy.
- Try to exercise every day.
- Break big tasks into smaller ones so that you feel a sense of accomplishment.
- Reward yourself whenever you finish an activity.
- Get plenty of sleep each night.
- Join a support group for people with apathy.