What Is Amotivational Syndrome? Causes, Controversy, And Treatment

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated April 25, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

From work politics to romantic relationships, most of us balance a range of obligations that demand our time, energy, and motivation. Most of us will experience a lack of motivation to complete daily tasks or simply engage in activities that we usually enjoy, from time to time. But if you regularly feel disengaged from daily responsibilities or indifferent to former passions, your feelings may indicate a more significant condition.

There are a range of mental health conditions that can affect your sense of motivation and drive, including amotivational syndrome (AS). According to the American Psychological Association (APA), AS is a behavior pattern characterized by a loss of drive and initiative. It is sometimes associated with schizophrenia and chronic cannabis use, although more research is needed to confirm these associations.

Many researchers and healthcare professionals debate the validity of this condition. While more studies are needed to understand AS and its mechanisms, its symptoms may resonate among people who frequently use cannabis, are diagnosed with schizophrenia, or use selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Read on to learn more about the potential causes and symptoms of AS, followed by treatments to manage the condition and improve your overall health. 

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Amotivational syndrome (AS): What to know

According to a 2013 study of AS in people who use cannabis and other recreational drugs, individuals with AS may appear detached from the outer world and experience a loss of emotional reactivity, drives, and aims. In general, AS is characterized by a lack of motivation, which is also one of the key symptoms of clinical depression. To diagnose someone with AS, a doctor needs to have a full understanding of that individual’s physical and mental health history, their relationship with drugs, and other circumstantial factors that may affect their motivation levels.  

AS is generally divided into two subtypes: marijuana amotivational syndrome, also known as cannabis-induced amotivational syndrome, and SSRI-induced amotivational syndrome or SSRI-induced apathy. 

Marijuana amotivational syndrome

The connection between cannabis and motivation is a source of extensive debate, as recognized by a group of researchers in a 2006 study of cannabis and motivation. In their research, cannabis-induced AS is characterized by apathy toward life, fatigue, and poor performance at work and school. In their study of regular cannabis users, the researchers found no correlation between cannabis use and motivation. In other studies, however, result aligns with the AS hypothesis: in a 2019 study of marijuana and motivation, for example, researchers identified significant links between chronic cannabis usage, apathy, and passivity, which may reduce performance at work and school. 

Ultimately, researchers are gathering more information to clarify the connection between cannabis consumption and motivation. As the research develops, it’s important to remember that other lifestyle factors can affect our ability to self-motivate. Psychologists often discuss motivation under the umbrella of self-efficacy, which describes an individual’s belief in their capacity to perform and achieve desired outcomes. Some research indicates that cannabis may reduce an individual’s sense of self-efficacy, and, indirectly, their motivation levels.

SSRI-induced amotivational syndrome

For many people living with clinical depression and anxiety, SSRIs are an invaluable tool. However, some studies suggest that regular SSRI usage is associated with behavioral apathy and emotional blunting, which means that individuals may experience low motivation and have difficulty getting hold of a full range of emotions. The mechanisms of SSRI-induced apathy remain unclear, but current research points toward a disruption of activity in the frontal lobes. In some people, SSRIs may cause dysfunction in this brain region by altering levels of serotonin, which plays a role in emotional processing, mood, sexual desire, and other psychological dimensions.

Symptoms of amotivational syndrome

For many people, the symptoms of AS resemble those of clinical depression. In people with AS, some of the most common changes in personality, emotions, and cognitive function include: 

  • Poor concentration
  • Memory disturbances
  • Reduced or “blunted” emotions
  • Apathy
  • Lack of activity
  • Avolition, or the failure to engage in goal-directed behavior, per the APA

Compared to a person with clinical depression, an individual with AS may find that their symptoms subside when they reduce their use of cannabis or SSRIs. However, people who are predisposed to develop AS may already have a history of depression or related mental health conditions. If you suspect that your use of SSRIs, cannabis, or another recreational or prescription drug is affecting your motivation and overall health, consult a doctor for further guidance. 

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Amotivational syndrome controversy 

To date, most of the research on AS consists of observational reports and case histories. According to a World Health Organization (WHO) report, none of the research on AS yields any conclusive evidence about the existence and causes of AS.

While SSRIs have been associated with indifference, it’s unclear whether they lead to a loss of motivation and drive that meet the criteria for AS. Similarly, in the realm of cannabis, researchers have not reached any concrete conclusions about the long-term motivational and psychological effects of regular cannabis usage. However, there is little doubt that cannabis intoxication has some effect on the nervous system. When AS is discussed in the context of cannabis, it may be more helpful – and more accurate – to regard AS as a set of behaviors. From this standpoint, these behaviors develop from an interaction of cannabis usage, personality traits, and circumstantial factors that may affect a person’s motivation levels.

Preexisting mental health conditions, socioeconomic factors, and generalized life stress may predispose individuals to use cannabis, develop depression, and/or develop AS. Like many psychological conditions, it’s difficult (and perhaps impossible) to show that a single factor “causes” AS.

Treatment of amotivational syndrome

If you believe that you or a loved one are experiencing AS, it’s important to connect with a therapist and doctor and discuss your lack of motivation, as well as any related symptoms. While your healthcare provider will likely recognize the controversy surrounding AS, they can also validate your concerns and discuss a treatment plan to improve your symptoms. 

If you suspect that you’re experiencing AS due to cannabis or SSRIs, your doctor will most likely recommend one of the following options:

  • Reduce your cannabis usage
  • Reduce the dosage of your SSRI medication
  • Try another form of antidepressant drugs 

Consult with your doctor before making any of these decisions. It’s important to implement any lifestyle changes gradually, safely, and with the oversight of a licensed medical professional.

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Online therapy for amotivational syndrome

A growing body of evidence indicates that online therapy can effectively address depression, anxiety, and related conditions. In a study of Internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), participants reported feeling actively engaged in the treatment, which was interactive and could be tailored to the specific needs of each patient. While this study does not explicitly assess AS, the researchers note that when patients play an active role in the therapeutic process, they may be more motivated to do the “work” of therapy and utilize coping strategies outside of sessions.

If you’re struggling to find the motivation to schedule and commute to an in-person therapy appointment, Internet-based therapy is an excellent alternative. Platforms like  BetterHelp give you the flexibility to connect with licensed, experienced therapists on your own terms. Get hold of resources and counseling sessions from the comfort of your home, and communicate with your therapist via text, live chat, video conference, or phone call. If you’re interested in getting started, check out the following reviews from real BetterHelp users, who have restored their mental health with the support of an online therapist.

Counselor reviews

"Stephanie has been my counselor for six months and I can say she has definitely been a great help in pulling me out of the abyss and helping me in the battle with my depression. She doesn't give too much and never takes away too little. She is always listening and questioning and responding. That helps me think further and understand what I need to do to be the better person I want to be. Stephanie has been a great help for that and if I could I would send all my friends directly to her for their own therapy. Cause I always bring up how great she is in every social conversation about therapy that I can get."

"Laurie is an empathetic and motivational person. I feel like I can just be honest with and go to her for support. She is super client-centered and will be your biggest advocate. In just two sessions she has been a great listening ear but more importantly has provided me with fresh perspectives and real-life exercises to help with my confidence and anxiety. She is warm, understanding, and experienced. I would definitely recommend!"

Takeaway

If you’re experiencing unusual changes in motivation, it may be time to seek professional help. A licensed counselor knows which questions to ask, as well as coping strategies and activities to restore your zest for life. Ultimately, your counselor can help you reconnect with your emotions, passions, and drive. Regardless of where you begin the journey, investing in your mental health is a commendable and potentially transformative decision.
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