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Apathy: A Common Barrier to Motivation | Image shows a sprout emerging from dry soil

Apathy: A Common Barrier to Motivation

anxiety depression mindfulness May 15, 2018
By Tim Culbert, MD


Do you struggle with low energy, decreased physical activity, or feeling like you just don’t want to do much, even though you have things you should do? Understanding your motivation and the role of apathy can help you tailor strategies to help you get back to feeling and moving more like you. Let’s dive in...

The Flow of Motivation

Motivation waxes and wanes naturally for all sorts of reasons. Those fluctuations are normally no big deal. Humans are complex and life is complicated, so lots of things can cause temporary decreases in excitement, energy, and the ability to get things done. Stressful events; a bad night’s sleep; or even subtle seasonal changes in activity, light exposure, and lifestyle habits can reduce motivation in ways that may just require a day or week of patience and recovery.

But, what if motivation remains MIA for too long? When does a lack of motivation or productivity become worrisome or represent something that needs to be tended to? There are some rare medical conditions of diminished motivation that can be blamed (e.g., abulia and akinetic mutism). It’s far more likely though that the culprit is something you’ve already heard of: Apathy. Apathy can be driven by psychological, emotional, or medical factors and is defined as a noticeable lack of motivation that is different from a person’s normal baseline and/or reduced goal-directed behavior and thinking.

Contributors to Apathy

Medical Contributors. Gradual changes in motivation and/or fatigue can be related to common conditions such as low iron, low vitamin D3 levels, and inadequate sleep.  A healthcare provider can help navigate these issues and address other potential factors such as low thyroid function, blood sugar regulation problems like diabetes, or lack of motivation associated with neurological symptoms (e.g., headache, mental fog, memory issues, confusion, muscle weakness).

There’s also a chemistry of motivation to consider. Specifically, an imbalance in neurotransmitter functioning may be partly at work when low motivation is present. Three key scenarios may play a role:

  1. Low Dopamine.  Dopamine is the brain’s primary reward chemical. Dopamine depletion can ignite a constant drive to hit the pleasure button or a downward spiral into the pit of apathy and inertia.
  2. Too Much Norepinephrine. Norepinephrine plays a major role in alertness and attention. Too much contributes to stress symptoms and too little can result in sluggishness and problems with focus.
  3. Low Serotonin.  Serotonin helps you feel calm and happy. Too little can contribute to a worried mind or lack of pleasure.  

Mental Health Contributors. Apathy and lack of motivation commonly buddy up with stress, anxiety, depression, and problems with focus.

Two distinct patterns can arise when stress or anxiety are at play:

  1. Mind Chatter. Distracting thoughts and lack of mental clarity can make it nearly impossible to follow through with a task. The sympathetic nervous system gets cranked up, possibly causing restlessness and hyperfocus on the wrong things.
  2. Burnout. This chronic pattern of mind chatter and over-arousal gradually depletes the system. Burnout exhausts the mind-body-heart and leaves little fuel left to get anything done.

When depression is present, an absence of joy or pleasure known as anhedonia can arise. This state leaves little emotional energy to get up and get things done. It’s like that “meh” feeling of just not caring.

If focus or other problems of attention are at play, a feeling of lacking the capacity to “stick to it” may be present. This is particularly true with uninteresting, but important tasks of attention and organization. This trouble with task completion may come across as lazy to others, despite a person’s best intentions and efforts to stay focused and productive.

Move From Apathy to Activated

Working with a licensed healthcare provider is the first step to address the concerns noted above. In concert with that assistance, here are some additional options to consider to address apathy in its many forms:

  1. Learn your Resilience Type. Take our Resilience Quiz to learn your Resilience Type. Knowing your Resilience Type can help you tailor your effort as you boost your resilience and motivation in meaningful ways.
  2. Eat for Energy: Smaller, more frequent meals and snacks across the day can stabilize blood sugar and keep your energy up. Try to include some protein along with complex carbohydrates at each meal and snack for your biggest boost. You can learn more about this type of eating and the Resilient Diet here.
  3. Try Intervals. Brief bursts of aerobic physical activity can help your brain release needed neurotransmitters, get blood flow moving, and help you to clear your mind and reset. Be sure to check with your doctor about the levels of intensity that are safe for you. 
  4. Recharge Your Spiritual Batteries. Attend a concert, find an inspirational natural landscape to admire, seek out beauty at a local museum, or just enjoy a good, long, belly-laugh!

Remember, motivation ebbs and flows and apathy is not your default state. Be gentle and encouraging with yourself as you build your motivation and create meaningful changes in your life. You can do it! 




Go Deeper With Your 19 Senses

In order to wake up your senses, it’s important to understand them a bit better. You probably learned about the five senses in health class: touch, smell, hearing, seeing, and taste. One appealing and straight-forward quality of the five-sense model is that each of the senses is paired with a specific, highly visible part of the body. You can point to your eyes, ears, mouth, nose, and skin. However, depending on how you define the human sense organs, functions, and abilities; there may be many more senses beyond just five. And you can access them! Read more.




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This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice and is not a replacement for advice and treatment from a medical professional. Consult your doctor or other qualified health professional before beginning any diet change, supplement, or lifestyle program. See our terms for more information.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call the NAMI HelpLine: 1-800-950-6264 available Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m., ET. OR text "HelpLine" to 62640 or email NAMI at [email protected]. Visit NAMI for more. You can also call or text SAMHSA at 988 or chat 988lifeline.org.