What Is Apathy?
Apathy is when you lack motivation to do anything or just don’t care 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.
But 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.
Apathy Signs and Symptoms
You may be able to see the signs of apathy in yourself. Or a friend or family member might point out that you don't seem as interested or engaged as you used to be.
The 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 severe 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
Doctors most often see apathy in people with dementia, depression, or stroke, but you can have it without having another medical condition along with it.
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.