Apathy: How Does It Feel to Not Feel Anything?

What breeds apathy and when does it become serious? Doctors help us understand.

Mind It
6 min read
To a layperson, apathy means indifference, insensitivity, and unwillingness to do anything.

We live in difficult times. With so much happening around, it seems impossible to not be affected, to not feel something.

But if it really were that impossible, apathy would not exist. There would not be people who don’t feel anger, frustration, or even happiness and joy; who seem to be immune to anything that happens to them or to those around them.

But what explains this numbness? Is it a sign of something serious?

Breaking Apart Apathy

The term ‘apathy’ comes from the Greek word ‘pathos’, which means emotions and feelings. A-pathy is a lack of any of these.

To a layperson, apathy characterises indifference, insensitivity, and unwillingness to do anything. It is used to describe a person who just ‘doesn’t care’. But in simplifying the term, we are also taking away its potential implications.

Ritika Aggarwal Mehta, Consultant Psychologist, Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre, starts off by explaining what apathy looks like.

“It’s a lack of interest in things that you would normally enjoy.”
Ritika Aggarwal Mehta

She helps us list some signs that could hint towards apathy:

  • You feel unmotivated and your performance starts decreasing.
  • You don’t finish things and tasks because everything seems so pointless.
  • Unemotional responses to news or personal events.
  • You become unproductive, spending hours on social media, wasting time watching TV or playing video games.
  • You tend to eat too much and exercise too little. Your friends and family tell you that you’re being lazy.
  • Naturally, there is no sense of achievement in the end.
  • You start avoiding friends because you are embarrassed about your lack of achievements.
  • All this leads to a feeling of guilt, shame, and extremely low self-esteem.

Dr Kamna Chhibber, Clinical Psychologist and Head of the Mental Health Department at Fortis Healthcare, summarizes it when she says, “Basically, apathy is a compromise of your emotional bandwidth in the steer of your own life and in your relationships with people. It doesn’t allow you to relate to your own self or to that of others.”

Digging Deep: What Breeds Apathy?

Apathy: How Does It Feel to Not Feel Anything?
(Photo: iStockphoto)

Stress, hectic lifestyles and constantly being on the edge can make it difficult for some people to cope effectively with all that is going on, says Dr Kamna. This squeezes out their sensitivity. “So, any additional thing that comes up throws them off, and they are unable to respond appropriately or adequately.”

Even more importantly, she talks about the bombardment of similar kinds of information that could result in insensitivity among people.

“This is also what contributes to the ‘bystander effect’, when people don’t respond well to someone else being harassed or victimised. This is because they think ‘yeh toh hota rehta hai’. This inhibits us from being able to express in a more empathetic manner. The same approach could also cause apathy.”
Dr Kamna Chhibber

Apathy may also accompany a chronic illness. Ritika Aggarwal Mehta explains that over time, any chronic illness can lead to the feeling of not feeling accomplished because of how it affects a person’s daily functioning and routine. This could lead to low self-esteem and fuel apathy. “You’re not able to do a lot of things that you could do earlier. So you constantly ask yourself: What’s the point? The fear of failure or rejection looms large.”

“Illness also could make a person more negative in their outlook. They may think: I know another person who is sick and is unable to do this. So how can I?” 
Ritika Aggarwal Mehta

And even before you reach this stage, you start curtailing your freedom and interactions with others. It’s like saying, “I don’t want to go out. What if I fall?”

This works in a loop. Inefficiency and unproductivity lead to low self-esteem and the feeling of not accomplishing anything. It is here that you start finding everything pointless — maneuvering yourself into the dangerous trench of apathy.

Apathy and Brain Disorders: The Lesser Known Link

Apathy: How Does It Feel to Not Feel Anything?
(Photo: Arnica Kala/FIT)

Apathy has been a common symptom and result of anxiety, depression, and many neurodegenerative diseases. Illnesses such as dementia or Alzheimer’s cause damage to the brain’s frontal lobes that control motivation, planning, and sequencing of tasks.

About 2–5 percent of older people without dementia have apathy at any one time, compared to the 50–70 percent of those with dementia.

A 2011 study that explored the link between dysthymia, depression, and apathy, stated, “Apathy may also occur in various psychiatric and neurological disorders, including schizophrenia, stroke, Parkinson's disease, progressive supranuclear palsy, Huntington's disease, and dementias such as Alzheimer's disease, vascular dementia, and frontotemporal dementia.”

When apathy combines with the disorder, it often makes it difficult to manage the disease better. The lack of motivation and enthusiasm makes apathetic people less inclined to do things like exercise or follow their medicine doses.

Dr Azad M Irani, Consultant Department of Neurology at Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre, helps us understand this.

“Your brain controls every part of the body, including emotions. Multiple circuits are connected that may make you hypo-emotional or hyper-emotional. Apathy is a case of hypo-emotionality. Any brain illness is bound to affect all aspects of a person’s life, including the capability to feel emotions.”
Dr Azad M Irani

While it is common to confuse apathy with depression and vice-versa, the two are very different. Dr Kamna explains, “Depression is an illness that we diagnose if the symptoms have been there for two weeks. It affects mood, sleep, appetite, sense of self-worth and leads to hopelessness. Apathy, however, may not always lead to depression. It is a red flag for sure. It means that you need to start taking care of yourself.”

Dealing With Apathy: Is There a Way Out?

When we talk about dealing with apathy, it becomes pertinent to manage the root cause of it. Dr Azadi says that we can divide the causes into two: treatable and non-treatable. Start with ruling out the treatable, like thyroid, high sugar, or depression. After this, the only option is symptomatic treatment.

“There are certain drugs that could act as mood elevators. But anti-depressants are not a long-run option. Eventually, the body will get resistant to these.”
Dr Azad M Irani

However, on a larger scale and before getting onto medication, some conscious lifestyle changes may help counter apathy. Dr Kamna suggests mindfulness and a more concerted effort towards conversations surrounding emotional experiences. “How we talk about emotions needs to be re-evaluated. Be mindful of the kind of language you use in the way you report, or even when you’re in a group of friends. We can’t be callous with our words, because that takes away from the emotional experience.”

“You also need to give yourself the kind of time to experience things, which is something that most of us don’t have today. We are always on the go. But we need to create spaces for ourselves where we can relax and unwind. This also helps manage stress and any resultant apathy.”
Dr Kamna Chhiber

Moreover, apathy at the end of the day, is your thought process, says Ritika Mehta. Psychotherapy could help improve these thoughts and instil more positivity.

“Look for things or places that make you happy. It could also help if you shake things up a bit and alter your routine with little things. Break tasks into smaller chunks and complete them. This gives a sense of accomplishment, that you have some control over your life.”
Ritika Aggarwal Mehta

As Dr Kamna puts it, apathy is an indicator and a warning sign. If you don’t engage in self-care, it could hamper your well-being, mood, health, and relationships. This is when it may precipitate into depression, anxiety and other serious illnesses that would require medical intervention.

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