Apathy as a Response to Overwhelming Conditions / The psychological implications of not caring

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW


The languor of inactivity and mind-numbing fatigue is a pervasive experience these days. It’s too exhausting to muster up feelings. Hence, pleasure and happiness seem like elusive pastimes. Motivation is low and effort is minimal. Just getting through the day is a tremendous feat. Still, we plod on, collectively desensitized and apathetic, quietly hoping that this oppressive groundhog day called life, will magically shift.

Ironically this state of emotional paralysis is paradoxically rooted in being overwhelmed. As American novelist, John Dos Passos wrote,

Apathy is one of the characteristic responses of any living organism when it is subjected to stimuli too intense or too complicated to cope with. The cure for apathy is comprehension.

Indeed, apathy syndrome is a perplexing state of emotional distress in which consciousness is markedly reduced and motivation is impaired. Often it’s associated with major neurocognitive and psychiatric disorders, but for the sake of this article, and for the sake of comprehension as Passos suggests, I posit that our current state of collective apathy is primarily fueled by situational circumstances.

As a complex trauma therapist, over the years I’ve witnessed apathy ensue in response to prolonged relational abuse. Not being able to effect change or reach others in a meaningful way, particularly abusive family members can lead to profound feelings of disillusionment. A ‘why bother’ mentality becomes universalized, to the point where relationships are shunned. There is simply too much pain and dissapointment associated with intimacy. Being alone feels preferable to risking one’s vulnerability. This stance often entails working through activation of prior relational traumas and engaging with trapped grief so that apathy can eventually shift to a willingness to try.

Similarly, the immersion in a global health crisis coupled by a broken healthcare system, systemic racism, an opioid epidemic, soaring homelessness and crime, economic collapse leading to personal financial distress, police brutality, violent demonstrations, and a surreal election has contributed to a marked increase in symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorders and suicide among U.S. adults. Other research and reporting reveals an exacerbation of symptoms for people with disordered eating, substance use disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

The impact of an omnipresent pandemic in which people are dying in isolation and in which there are no therapeutic guidelines beyond donning a mask and keeping a six foot distance, has taken its toll.

Adaptation is a blessing and a curse. We have an uncanny ability to cope with the most challenging circumstances. Yet it is this same function that can prevent us from making critical life-enhancing choices, such as returning to a more engaged, demanding level of functioning. We habituate to the psychical inertia necessary to adapt to prolonged sequestering until it becomes ‘normal’. Yet it’s not normal. That the chronic threat of inertia along with survival fears are igniting self-protective dissociative abilities, is testimony to that fact. Likewise fried adrenals from neurotic rumination and obsessive worrying are contributing to fatigue and apathy. Yet we adjust.

There is a point in which adjustment becomes disordered. When stressful life events are difficult to cope with defense mechanisms such as denial, minimization and intellectualization are relied upon to manage distressing or overwhelming emotions. If these defenses cannot sufficiently manage emotional and behavioral reactions, an adjustment disorder may manifest. This means one’s temperament, prior history, and vulnerabilities clash with external stressors in ways that cause psychological debilitation.

The Mayo Clinic conveys that an adjustment disorder starts, “within three months of a stressful event and last no longer than 6 months after the end of the stressful event. However, persistent or chronic adjustment disorders can continue for more than 6 months, especially if the stressor is ongoing, such as unemployment.”

As a result of persistent extraneous pressures an adjustment disorder progresses and further disconnection between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors occurs. Eventually the combination of rage, depression and feelings of impotence can lead to an all-consuming experience of apathy. Logistically one can surmise that boredom + terror + inertia (lack of agency)= apathy.

Given that older adults with severe apathy were found to be 80% more likely to develop dementia than responsive peers, it stands to reason that reducing what is being coined ‘pandemic fatigue’ is critical to mental well being. At the seven month mark of restrictions and lockdowns the creative resilience and charitable support that initially ensued has turned into detached restlessness.

Clearly there is a desperate need for change, mobility, and hope. Addressing extraneous conditions such as the need for adequate healthcare and economic stability is integral to psychological stability. In fact a research study concluded that the continuation of lockdown measures will conservatively “destroy at least seven times more years of human life” than they save. Unfortunately how the ‘powers that be’ proceed is beyond our scope of volition.

This means we are challenged to confront what’s underlying the veneer of apathy so as to assimilate oppressive emotions and circumstances. Ultimately acceptance is a healthy alternative to apathy, or even resignation. To heed the wisdom of Joseph Campbell the heroic quest always demands compromise with inner and external reality.

“The inner world is the world of your requirements and your energies and your structure and your possibilities that meets the outer world. And the outer world is the field of your incarnation. That’s where you are. You’ve got to keep both going.”

From a place of realistic acceptance we can hopefully find the strength to transcend apathy and formulate choices and pursuits that reflect new needs and desires. From this place perhaps we can make sense of this age of lunacy so that our hopes and dreams aren’t crushed and we aren’t reduced to dispassionate pawns.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY

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