Apathy: The Opposite Of Stress

By Nicole Beasley |Updated April 5, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Rashonda Douthit , LCSW

“Ugh, I just don’t even care anymore!”

Most people have said this phrase at one point or another to reflect how fed up we feel with a certain situation. We might say it about school or our jobs or a relationship that’s frustrating. However, despite saying that we don’t care, most people still care enough to continue going through the motions or working towards success in their particular situation. In practice, for example, we might groan, “I’m so over this!” even while we continue to study for a test or fulfill our responsibilities at work. Deep down, you may feel exhausted and fed up, but at the end of the day, you still care to some extent.

If you can relate to that situation, then your feelings are completely typical; everyone has experienced similar feelings throughout their lives. But if you feel as though you don’t care about anything and you no longer go through the motions, this may be a sign of apathy. And if you’re feeling truly apathetic about your life, these feelings could be indicative of a deeper and more problematic mental or physical health issue. So, in this article, we’ll take a closer look at apathy to learn what it is and why it can be problematic.

The word apathy comes from the Greek pathos, which means emotion. When we experience apathy we lack the ability to express emotion (Reekum, Stuss, & Ostrander, 2005). There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that apathy is both a symptom of, and possible attribute to, many neurological and degenerative diseases such as dementia, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's (Robert et al., 2006). These studies are relatively new and have resulted in the development of new apathy scales to measure apathy levels (Radakovic& Abrahams, 2014).

When we worry, feel anxious, or experience stress over our jobs, our relationships, or our finances it can lead to other physical and mental health-related concerns. The good news is these all mean we care; we have not given up and there is still fight in us. According to research (David et al., 2008), our frontal cortex is active when we worry. When we are apathetic, the frontal cortex begins to deteriorate, or atrophy, and this is a significant feature of diseases such as Alzheimer's (Apostolova et al., 2007).

What is Apathy?

Put simply, apathy is the absence of emotion. When someone is apathetic, they feel disinterested and unmotivated and, as a result, they may not care about their life or the things that are going on around them. In small degrees, apathy is not necessarily problematic. For example, imagine that you and your family are trying to decide what to do for dinner that evening. You can either go out to a restaurant or you can go home and make a grilled cheese sandwich. If both options sound equally palatable to you and you genuinely do not have a preference, you might feel apathetic about your choices for dinner.

In this case, you genuinely might not care what you have to eat and that’s okay. Feeling apathetic about two equally good dinner options does not mean you have stopped caring about every other aspect of your life. But if, by contrast, you are experiencing problems in your marriage, performance issues at work, and financial difficulties, and you find yourself feeling apathetic about those things, this can be problematic. That’s because feelings of apathy can have a negative impact on a person’s life. It can prevent you from engaging in everyday activities that are essential for your quality of life and can negatively affect your choices. Apathy can also be a sign of a deeper mental or physical problem, so if you’re experiencing strong feelings of apathy, it can be worth investigating these feelings in an effort to discover the deeper cause.

The Difference Between Apathy And Depression

Feelings of apathy generally do not occur in isolation; apathy is commonly a symptom of another mental or physical health problem, so it’s important to identify the root cause. For treatment purposes, it’s also important to separate apathy from mental health problems which seem similar but, in reality, are not the same. For example, apathy is commonly confused with depression, but these conditions actually aren’t as similar as you think.

These conditions are often mistaken for one another because, on the surface, they appear to share similar symptoms. For example, someone who is experiencing depression may struggle with a wide range of symptoms, including:

  • An overwhelming and pervasive sense of sadness that doesn’t go away
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Fatigue
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Eating more or less than usual
  • Sleeping more or less than usual
  • Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Recurrent thoughts of suicidal ideation

These symptoms can seem similar to apathy because feeling depressed may sound a lot like feeling apathetic. Many people who are struggling with severe depression feel so sad that they may not seem as though they don’t care about what’s going on in their lives. But, in practice, people who live with depression are not necessarily apathetic; they’re experiencing feelings of sadness so intense that their depression has temporarily stifled their other emotions. People who have depression often report that they desperately want to be happy but that they are so sad, they feel unable to remember what happiness is like.

Fortunately, however, many people who struggle with depression can experience significant relief from their symptoms with the aid of therapy and medication. In fact, many people have reported that therapy has helped so much that their depression symptoms almost seem to disappear! This is one of the primary reasons why it’s important to distinguish the difference between apathy and depression. Because, if you’re struggling with symptoms of depression and you think you feel apathetic, you may be pleasantly surprised to learn that you aren’t experiencing apathy at all! Instead, you can seek treatment for depression and experience relief from your symptoms.

What Causes Apathy?

In the previous section, we observed that apathy and depression are not the same thing, even though they can seem similar. So, now, it’s time to take a closer look at the reality of apathy and what causes it. Depression is a mental health condition that can cause someone to think they feel apathetic when, in reality, their symptoms stem from excessive feelings of sadness. True apathy is a little different; when someone feels apathetic, they can feel unmotivated and disinterested in every aspect of their life, even if they are not experiencing depression. And because these feelings are not typical aspects of a person’s emotional experience, feelings of apathy are often a red flag that point to a deeper mental or physical health problem.

The causes of apathy can vary, so it’s important to seek help from your doctor and/or a therapist as you try to get to the root of the problem. If you are experiencing signs of apathy, the specifics of your case will vary, but common causes often include:

  • Alzheimer’s and Dementia

No one wants to imagine that they might be experiencing either of these conditions, especially if you’re relatively young. But the unfortunate reality is that apathy is a common hallmark of both of these conditions. In fact, studies show that over “70% of people with dementia have this loss of interest.” The American Alzheimer’s Association reports that “Alzheimer's is not just a disease of old age. Younger-onset (also known as early-onset) Alzheimer's affects people younger than age 65. Younger-onset is much less common, and prevalence among the more than 6 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s is uncertain,” although it has still been known to occur.

So, if you’re experiencing significant feelings of apathy and you’re younger than 65, it’s important to take your symptoms seriously. Even if you think you may be living with depression, don’t try to self-diagnose and simply assume that depression is the only condition you can have. Talking about these symptoms with your doctor can lead to a very helpful screening for early-onset Alzheimer’s and this can have a dramatic impact on your future and your quality of life. Although it can be very difficult to confront the reality of a diagnosis like early-onset Alzheimer’s, for the sake of your health and your future, it’s better to know and begin treatment as soon as possible.

  • Stroke

If you’ve recently experienced a stroke, it’s not uncommon for your brain to struggle with new challenges as a result of this trauma. A stroke can have a dramatic impact on your brain function and your emotional regulation; many people who have recently had a stroke report intense feelings of apathy along with unexpected changes in their personality. So, if you know that you’ve recently had a stroke and you’re experiencing new and uncharacteristic feelings, it’s important to mention these things to your doctor. As in the case of Alzheimer’s and dementia, apathy is often not a symptom of a mental health condition but a physical or neurological problem that your doctor can help you investigate.

  • Schizophrenia

Intense feelings of apathy can also occasionally be a symptom of schizophrenia. Although these symptoms more commonly occur for people who have recently experienced a stroke or are showing signs of early-onset dementia, apathy can sometimes occur in people who live with schizophrenia. Studies show that apathy can sometimes occur as a result of antipsychotic medications, which are commonly prescribed to people who experience schizophrenia, or as a symptom of depression, which is a common struggle for people who have schizophrenia. So, if you have a history of schizophrenia and you are now experiencing signs of apathy, it’s also important to mention this symptom to your doctor.

Treatment For Apathy

Apathy can be difficult to treat and that’s exactly why it’s so important to get advice from your doctor. The precise cause of your apathy will dictate your treatment options, so identifying the cause is vital. For example, because apathy is different from depression, the common treatments for depression are often ineffective for treating apathy. In many cases, antidepressants— which are commonly prescribed for people living with depression— actually make apathy worse.

Likewise, if you’re experiencing early-onset Alzheimer’s, dementia, the after-effects of a stroke, or schizophrenia, your treatment options will be connected to the condition you’re experiencing. If you have any of these conditions, your doctor will be able to prescribe certain medications that may be helpful for you; these medications will likely be very different from those which are prescribed for the treatment of depression.

If medication is ineffective for you, it can be difficult to find another treatment option for apathy. Fortunately, however, many people have found that therapy can help. Connecting with a therapist can be highly beneficial because therapy provides you with professional insights about your symptoms and the arsenal of tools you need to fight apathy and rediscover joy. Your treatment plan for apathy will depend on your specific symptoms and you and your therapist can work together to determine what will be best and most effective for you. But, to give you an idea of what you can expect, therapeutic treatments for apathy are often centered on helping you reconnect with things in life that bring you joy.

For example, your therapist might encourage you to connect with a support group for people who are experiencing apathy in addition to trying music therapy, art therapy, or connecting with an emotional support animal. These solutions may seem overly simplistic but all of them have been proven to help with feelings of apathy and they may be beneficial for you! 

Connecting With a Therapist

So, if you feel ready to reach out and seek hope and healing through therapy, you may want to consider BetterHelp! BetterHelp is an online mental health provider run by licensed counselors and therapists who are passionate about making mental health care accessible to all. With the advances in modern technology, many people have gravitated toward online therapy because this format is more convenient in our hectic, fast-paced world. Rather than needing to amend your schedule to attend an in-person therapy appointment, online therapy is literally right at your fingertips; you can chat with your therapist from the comfort of your own phone any time you want!

So, if you feel disinterested and unmotivated on a regular basis, it’s likely that these feelings are having a profound impact on your quality of life. But the good news is that you don’t have to feel this way forever! Therapy can be a lifeline during difficult times and connecting with a therapist can empower you with the hope and healing you need. Online therapy can be especially helpful if you don’t have the energy and motivation to leave your home and attend a physical appointment.

By connecting with a therapist and unpacking your emotions, you’ll be able to learn more about your own mental and emotional health and develop positive coping mechanisms that can give you hope for the future. Symptoms of apathy can make you feel hopeless and isolated but it’s important to remember that you are never alone and you are never beyond hope. BetterHelp’s convenient online therapy platform can empower you to rediscover the joy in your life by connecting with a therapist online today.

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