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Breaking Free from Apathy

After posting my blog about perfectionism last week, I received an interesting comment on Instagram. As the user wrote, "Maybe this is a crazy question, but what about combatting apathy? Sometimes (like always) I feel like I do the opposite—that I don't put enough pride into my work."

As I shared my response on Instagram, I realized that there was so much to unpack here! As such, today's post is all about how recognizing and coping with feelings of apathy.

First Thing's First: What is apathy, anyway?

Apathy can be defined as a lack of feeling, emotion, interest, or concern about something. According to a 2017 study by PLOS One, there are different sub-types of apathy that one can experience:

  • Emotional apathy: lack of both positive and negative emotions

  • Behavioural apathy: lack of self-initiated behaviours

  • General apathy: low motivation, poor emotional responses, and a lack of social engagement

The following experiences are usually common among people who are feeling apathetic:

  • Disinterest in tasks

  • Low energy levels

  • Lack of emotion about both positive and negative experiences

  • Feeling "numb" or indifferent

  • Lack of participation in daily activities

What Causes Apathy?

Here are some different theories about what causes apathy:

1. Compassion fatigue

Often referred to as the "negative cost of caring," compassion fatigue can contribute to feelings of apathy. Specifically, compassion fatigue is the result of spending a great deal of emotional, physical, and/or mental energy caring about something to the point where you "run out" of empathy about the person or situation.

2. Depression

As the authors of the aforementioned 2017 article write, "Distinguishing apathy from depression is challenging due to the overlaps in symptoms (e.g. lack of initiation). Nonetheless, it is recognized that apathy may be characterized by emotional blunting, whereas depression is an affective disorder featured by extreme emotional fluctuations."

While depression is characterized by persistent and disruptive feelings of sadness, hopelessness, guilt, and/or shame, apathy is characterized by a lack of feelings, including sadness. (You can click here to learn more about the criteria for depression.)

3. Burnout

Our nervous system consists of our brain, spinal cord, and all the nerves in our body. These nerves carry messages to and from the body so that the brain can interpret them and take action.

When we're stressed out, our nervous system triggers the body's fight, flight, or freeze response. Stress hormones flood through our body so that it is prepared to take action against the perceived "threat." However, our body isn't supposed to stay in this state for very long, meaning that it will go into a protective "shut down" mode after a certain period of time. In this phase, we might experience intense feelings of fatigue, a decrease in appetite, and emotional exhaustion.

This is a very adaptive and normal reaction for the human body to have after periods of prolonged stress. However, rather than seeing this as an adaptive state, many of us go into a place of self-criticism where we tell ourselves we "should be more motivated" before forcing ourselves to do some high-intensity interval training, which only adds salt to the wounds. If you're experiencing apathy, it could be that you're simply burnt out and need some time to recharge.

So, How Can We Take Care of Ourselves if We're Feeling Apathetic?

  1. Explore the narratives you have about your apathy—and where they stem from.

Are there certain domains in which you feel particularly apathetic (i.e. about your work? Your friendships? Your health?)? How do you feel about the apathy you're experiencing? Are certain self-judgments showing up or is a different reaction appearing?

There might be a lot to unpack once you're able to articulate these things. For example, if you're feeling particularly apathetic about seeing your friends and feel like you're being a "bad friend," what does this suggest about the "rules" you've created for yourself? Where do these rules come from—and are they still serving you? Are they rules that you created or did you inherit them from a parent, societal message, or cultural norm?

To use myself as an example, even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, I lost all interest in working out—and this is coming from someone who previously exercised six days a week. Once COVID-19 brought on intense feelings of uncertainty for all of us—and as I was supporting people through a pandemic that I, myself, was going through—I started feeling completely an utterly apathetic about working out. And my self-talk was not forgiving: What's wrong with me? I should be more motivated. I'm being so lazy.

After engaging in some self-reflection, I could see that I had so many narratives about the apathy itself, most of which told me that not working out made me "lazy" and "unproductive." Indeed, my frustrations had nothing to do with the lack of exercise itself; it was that I was failing to be what "The Person who Exercises" represents. People who exercise are disciplined. People who exercise are inspirational. People who exercise are better than people who don't. This told me a lot about what "rules" I'd set for myself and I was able to do some more inner work about where they came from and if they are still serving me.

Now, I've realized that trying to force myself to do an intense workout when I'm just trying to get through the damn year in one piece is not doing myself any favours. Now, I focus on eating nutritious foods as a way of being kind to my body and go for walks when I can as a way of helping me nervous system recharge itself, not stress out even more.

2. Normalize your apathy rather than being afraid of it.

This might sound simple and obvious but it's okay to feel apathetic about things you no longer care about. It's also okay to have different levels of care for different things in your life. I've seen people become so anxious about their apathy that they'll do whatever they can to trick themselves into caring about something again.

In these cases, simply acknowledging and accepting your apathy can be a game-changer. There's an expression that says "Suffering = Pain x Resistance," which applies well here I think. Take my story about being apathetic about working out: once I was able to just accept that no, I do not want to work out, a lot of my suffering subsided.

Further, allow yourself to get curious about why you might be feeling apathetic in the first place. Once you're able to identify that, you can also remind yourself of what your present-day values are and if your actions are continuing to honour them or not.

3. Reduce stress in as many places as possible.

As you now know, I define apathy as a natural and protective nervous system shutdown after periods of prolonged stress. If you're in this place, the #1 priority is to take care of yourself so you can actually recharge your batteries. Make a list of every stressor in your life and reduce as many of them as possible. If you find that you're losing your mind trying to come up with meal ideas for your family, for example, see if you can sign up for a food subscription service like Hello Fresh or Goodfood. If you're still commuting to work and always running late, wake up 30 minutes earlier so you can avoid starting your day in a tizzy. Eliminate any stressor you can, no matter how small.

4. Disrupt your routine in small ways.

I've noticed that many people who experience apathy have a sense that they're just "going through the motions"—something that's hard not to experience during this pandemic to be honest. In these instances, it can be helpful to figure out how you can disrupt your routine in even the smallest of ways. If you regularly go for walks, explore a different street instead of walking on the same path every day. Instead of watching Netflix at night, play a board game with your partner or read a book on your own. Wear outfits you normally don't or do your makeup in a new way. Try recipes from a different cookbook or from a type of cuisine that's unfamiliar to you. Work at a different room in your house. Seriously, doing anything other than what you normally do can help bring some colour into your life.

5. Create meaning.

Austrian Holocaust survivor, neurologist, and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl is best known for his book Man's Search for Meaning, which posits that "a man with a why can endure any how." Interestingly, Frankl focused on how people can achieve a sense of meaning and purpose rather than how they can achieve happiness or fulfillment as he saw suffering as being an unavoidable part of life.

On a more practical level, Frankl suggested that we can find meaning in three ways:

a. By creating work or doing a deed

b. By experiencing something or encountering someone

c. By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering

Indeed, Frankl believed that even in the hardest of circumstances, humans have the freedom to choose what the meaning of the experience is—or find purpose in pain.

If you are feeling apathetic, try finding meaning in the ways that Frankl suggested: create a passion project for yourself, do any task or deed that requires focus, connect with someone, and pay attention to the meanings you're making about your experience (and if they're serving you).

Additionally, consider other times in your life where you have experienced a sense of meaning and purpose and see if there are ways to bring elements of that into your present-day life. If you find meaning though connecting with others, for example, see if you can volunteer for an organization virtually or consider becoming a professional mentor to someone.

6. Connect with the beauty of things.

Cheesy as it may sound, finding the small beauties in life can help if you've been feeling particularly apathetic. Even if no feelings follow for now, just noticing things you find beautiful in the world can help you slowly break free from a feeling of numbness. For example, I absolutely adore Christmas lights, so I always am sure to look at everyone's Christmas decorations on my commute to and from work because every time I notice them, I'm filled with joy.

I also recently came across an amazing quote by the author David Foster Wallace from his final, unfinished novel The Pale King:

It turns out that bliss--a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious--lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, a boredom like you've never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it's like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss at every atom.

The Bottom Line

Apathy can be described as a lack of feeling or emotion that often stems from compassion fatigue or burnout. Know that experiencing waves of apathy is not only common, but it's a nervous system response that's natural and adaptive after periods of prolonged stress. Rather than judging yourself for any apathy you're experiencing, give yourself permission to be curious about it—how you feel towards it and where it might be coming from. Additionally, put your energy into normalizing the empathy rather than being hard on yourself and try to reduce as many daily stressors as you can as a way of helping your body, mind, and spirit recharge. Finally, try to reconnect with your values and what you find meaningful and try changing up your routine and savouring even the smallest moments of beauty you witness in the day.

What did you think of today's post? Let us know your ideas, comments, and stories in the comment section below!

If you've been experiencing feelings of apathy for a long time and need some support, contact to book an individual, couples, or family session at our Markham or Vaughan office. Fresh Insight is also offering virtual sessions at this time.

1 Comment

Arnold McLean
Arnold McLean
Aug 18, 2021

Lovvely post

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