Sooner or later, apathy knocks on our door. It is established as a feeling of reluctance that extends to the physical and mental plane. We don’t feel like doing anything, but we also feel drained inside. Sometimes this feeling assails us suddenly and disappears as it came. Other times it may be a sign that something more serious is happening and needs our attention.
Apathy, a definition beyond the lack of passion
To understand the definition of apathy we must go back to its etymological origin. This word comes from the Greek ἀπάθεια (apatheia), which derives from “phatos”, and means emotion, feelings or passion. Therefore, the concept of apathy basically refers to the absence of passion and feelings. In fact, when we feel apathetic we experience a state of affective dullness. We are not depressed, we simply lack the passion and drive of emotions and feelings.
However, apathy is not just a lack of emotion and enthusiasm but a generalized state of indifference in which we do not respond to aspects of our emotional, social and physical life. We enter a kind of emotional desert in which desire and strength leave us.
Apathy not only takes away our feelings, but also generates a lack of motivation and an attitude of indifference and carefree. The goals that normally energize our behavior lose their meaning and we are left lethargic and without energy, almost paralyzed and unable or unwilling to act.
The main symptoms of apathy
• On a physical level we feel heavier, it is as if we were pedaling with the wind against us, so that each pedal stroke costs us enormous energy. We feel completely exhausted and the usual rest is not enough to regain strength.
• On a cognitive level, we did not find anything challenging or interesting. Everything is the same to us. No intellectual stimulus excites us. No idea convinces us. We don’t feel the need to explore or learn new things.
• On an emotional level we feel completely drained. Nothing has the power to make us happy enough to activate us, but nothing makes us too angry or uncomfortable either. We simply live in a state of lethargy and affective flattening.
• At the volitional level we do not find the energy and motivation necessary to get going. It’s like we’ve run out of battery. Every time we try to do something, we feel like it requires superhuman effort.
When does apathy become a problem?
Apathy doesn’t necessarily have to be a sign of a problem. In fact, for the Stoic philosophers apatheia was a state of mind in which we rid ourselves of emotional disturbances. It involved the elimination of emotional reactions to external events beyond our control. From that perspective, apathy takes on a more positive meaning, approaching a state more similar to equanimity.
However, apathy is the sign of a problem when it becomes an obstacle to our daily lives and prevents us from enjoying ourselves. In fact, being listless for a long period of time can be a sign of depression or dissociative identity disorder.
The causes of widespread apathy
Apathy can have physical or psychological causes. The first step is to rule out that it is not a symptom of a disease. In fact, thyroid problems and hormonal imbalances, an improper diet, anemia, or even some medications can lead to an extreme state of dejection and exhaustion similar to apathy.
Having ruled out the physiological cause, the problem is likely to be psychological. Apathy is often a kind of handbrake to indicate that we need to stop in an hyperactive rhythm of life that demands too much of us. In those cases, the usual thing is that apathy lasts a couple of days since its mission is to force us to rest and disconnect from the world.
In other cases the causes of apathy are deeper and tell us something about how we are leading our lives. When we are immersed in a life that we do not like, either because we do the wrong work, we are surrounded by toxic people or we are immersed in a little developing environment. That lack of meaning, day after day, ends up taking its toll, draining our psychological resources and sucking up vitality.
Apathy can also be caused by living on autopilot for too long. When all days are the same and there is nothing to add spice to our existence, our vital energy can be slowly extinguished. Mario Benedetti described it best: “I have the horrible feeling that time passes and I do nothing, nothing happens and nothing moves me to the root”.
On the other hand, apathy may be the result of deep disappointment. Ultimately, when we are apathetic, we lose hope of being able to achieve happiness or personal fulfillment. It can occur because we have stopped believing in the value of the objectives that we set for ourselves or because we have lost confidence in our abilities to achieve them. In these cases, apathy presents itself as a kind of internal surrender.
In any case, and whatever the cause of apathy, it sends us a message: we have a problem that we must address. It is no accident that apathy lowers our energy level. It makes so that we can’t go so fast that our own pace confuses us. By forcing us to take a breath, it encourages us to reflect and resolve what is happening to us.
How to overcome the general apathy?
To overcome the general apathy we just have to get moving. We don’t have to do big things, just get started. Take a step. Although it is small, but it is worth it. Maybe we need to do – or undo – something that makes a difference in that sequence of equal days. Perhaps we need to decompress the compressed or express the repressed so that something is activated within us and we can get going again.
Only we know which apathy treatment really works for us. We need to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves: “If I had the desire or energy, what would I do?” We may not find out immediately, but when we know the answer, we just have to do it.
When we get going and do something that makes sense or makes us feel good, the sum of those little efforts tips the balance from apathy to interest. Indifference is giving way to curiosity and the will to live. Once the “engine” starts, everything gets easier.
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Goldberg, Y. K. et. Al. (2011) Boredom: An Emotional Experience Distinct from Apathy, Anhedonia, or Depression. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology; 30(6): 647-666.