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Blunted Affect – Restricted Display of Emotions

Blunted Affect – Restricted Display of Emotions

Updated on Jul 06, 2022

Reviewed by Dr. Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, MD , Certified Psychiatrist

Blunted Affect - Meaning, Signs, Examples, Forms, Causes & More

Key Takeaways

  • Blunted affect is a dull emotional response that is devoid of any specific expressions.
  • People with blunted affect show a tone down and dampen mood state.
  • Blunted affect doesn’t allow the person to express emotions either verbally or through facial expressions.
  • Blunted affect is a symptom of many psychological and neurological problems.
  • Blunted affect causes emotional numbness.
  • It lacks intensity and sharpness in emotional expression.
  • Blunted affect can be overcome by treating the underlying psychiatric condition.

Have you ever noticed a person with a blank look? Did you see that the individual was completely dull and expressionless?

This condition shows a lack of emotional expression and diminished facial and tonal expression. Technically, we know this as a blunted affect.

This reduced expression of feelings is caused due to an underlying mental illness. The person displays no signs or restricted signs of emotional display.

They will appear dull, numb, and without any facial sharpness.

There will be a complete failure to express the innate feelings either verbally or through body language.

The person appears vacant, empty, and impassive. There are no signs of emotion, especially in situations where connecting with emotions is quite probable.

We will learn more about this unfitting and improper emotional state in this article. 

Continue reading….

Blunted Affect Infographics

Blunted Affect - Meaning, Signs, Examples, Forms, Causes & More
Blunted Affect – Meaning, Signs, Examples, Forms, Causes & More
Blunted Affect - Meaning, Signs, Examples, Forms, Causes & More
Blunted Affect – Meaning, Signs, Examples, Forms, Causes & More

Blunted affect – meaning

Blunted affect is a state of shrinked or slackened feelings. The person doesn’t express as freely as they should. It refers to a reduced feeling state that appears dreary, bland, and unsuitable to the situation the person is in.

Blunted affect symbolizes an emotional state of restricted affect. In psychology, ‘affect’ means an overt expression of feelings and emotions

To a certain extent, affect means the present mood state of the person. The verbal and non-verbal expressions of emotions are used to reveal affect.

On the flip side, the term blunt refers to anything that lacks sharpness. It means that blunted affect is a diluted, weak, and depleted emotional state. 

When a person is in this emotional state, they will not be able to express emotions as freely as they should.

Blunted affect is dull and makes the person appear insensitive and lacking in feelings. This deficiency in feelings is not a disorder by itself. 

Blunted affect is one of the major symptoms associated with many serious psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia, major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism, borderline personality disorder, etc.

How blunted affect actually looks like?

The intensity of emotions diminishes in patients showing blunted affect. The person reduces their ability to feel and express emotions clearly.

Maybe, they themselves do not know how to define their present state of emotions.

Blunted affect symbolizes a bigger psychological discomfort than what one can actually expect.

With time, the decline of feelings occurs. The individual hardly responds or reacts to emotional stimuli.

They may show no signs of expression. Sometimes, blunted affect leads to no reaction point. It induces a state of flat affect. 

People who experience blunted affect are less responsive to happy news or sad incidents. Neither do they smile nor do they cry in situations where such expressions are likely to occur.

Blunted affect is revealed outside through low energy levels and no emotional sensitivity. It also has poor eye contact, inadequate or restricted gestures, and a host of other signs. 

The vocal expressions of emotions are either limited or completely missing.

Signs and symptoms of blunted affect

Before we delve deeper into the various signs of blunted affect, it’s imperative to understand how ‘affect’ helps in understanding a person’s underlying psychological state.

Affect refers to the outward reflection of one’s deep-seated emotions. As affect is an outside voicing of emotions, it can be readily observed by people who are close to the person.

Affect is observed through:

  • Facial expressions
  • Movements of various body parts like hands, and feet
  • The quality of speech
  • Tone of voice
  • Any specific gestures that represent the current mood 
  • Improbable rates of emotional expression.
  • The range of emotions varies with time and situation.

Blunted affect manifests a lesser degree or reduced intensity of emotional expression.

The person may appear unresponsive, less reactive, or may show a complete inability to feel and express emotion. 

For a layman, blunted affect may seem to be caused by a bad mood, sadness, deep-rooted emotional upheavals.

But to a mental health professional, blunted affect is a serious issue that needs to be looked at as soon as possible.

The reason is obvious. Blunted affect is an outward reflection of serious mental illness. Thus, it needs to be addressed early. 

Signs of blunted affect

The person with blunted affect shows some typical signs such as the following: 

  • Marked reduction in emotional expressiveness
  • Reduced facial expressions. No smiles and frowns, tears and fears
  • Subdued physical movements
  • No movements of hands and body parts while communicating with others
  • The person feels empty or devoid of any emotions
  • They neither show emotional excitement nor dooms down to agony
  • No significant change in tonal quality
  • Emotions appear numb and non-reactive
  • The rate and volume at which they speak is static
  • The voice remains unchanged during conversations with others
  • People with blunted affect show less energy level. 
  • They always appear less motivated than others
  • Loss of interest in daily activities
  • Poor social connections
  • Eye contact is poor or completely absent
  • The person doesn’t respond to emotional situations
  • Emotional detachment is evident
  • Lack of non-verbal gestures associated with emotional situations
  • The emotion expressed is not apt with the situation 

Blunted vs. flat affect

Blunted affect and flat affect seem to be the same at times. But there is a thin line of difference that sets them apart.

Blunted affect is defined as a state of restricted emotions. Flat affect is a state of no emotional expression.

People having blunted affect show extremely less reaction to emotional stimuli. It is actually a muted form of emotion. The feelings are present yet not getting expressed openly. 

In the case of flat affect, there is virtually no emotional response; neither through facial expressions nor through gestures. 

You can say it’s a difference in the degree and intensity of the emotional display. Flat affect has no emotional display at all. It is found in severe forms of depression and schizophrenia.

Blunted affect examples

We all experience emotional highs and lows. The degree and intensity of emotional expression also vary for each one of us. In normal circumstances, people show emotions in various ways. 

There will be an open expression of one’s deepest feelings through facial changes, use of gestures, and change in tonal quality.

People experiencing blunted affect show reduced emotional expressions than what they should be. They will not laugh if you crack a good joke. Even, some harsh truths will not be enough to make them cry.

The range, intensity, and degree of emotional expression are almost negligible in blunted affect.

A typical example of blunted affect could be breaking the news of someone’s close relative passing away, yet there is no emotional expression and facial changes seen outwardly in the person.

Blunted affect is considered a severe form of affective disorder associated with psychiatric illnesses.

Simply, this term refers to reduced emotional reactivity. It involves passive facial and bodily expressions of emotions.

The person appears serious, devoid of any emotions. The dullness looks like a state of being unemotional and reticent.

Blunted affect may lead to complete reluctance to talk, remaining silent, restrained, and aloof.

Other forms of affective states

As already stated, affect is the outward display of a person’s deepest feelings. Your emotional state may change according to the situation you’re in. 

Thus, affect or a person’s emotional display can be described in a broad range of spectrums. 

The full affect state is a normal state of emotional expression. It means your emotional responses are in tune with the relevance of the situation. 

For example: when someone cracks jokes, you will either smile or laugh excessively. If you hear a sad story of someone’s misfortune, you will sob. 

This is a normal expression that focuses on appropriate emotional expression. It maintains a balance of what is needed when and to what extent?

On the flip side, inappropriate affect refers to the inadequate and faulty display of emotions.

Thus, whenever emotional expression appears reduced or is not at par with the situation, it can be considered inappropriate.

Blunted affect is just one type of unsuitable affect because it doesn’t match with the person’s present state of mind.

The person displays less emotional reaction and response than what is probable for the situation.

Some other forms of inappropriate affect are as follows:

1. Flat affect

This type of affect is typical of no emotional expression. The person appears passive, emotionally non-reactive, and non-responsive. 

It symbolizes the absence of emotional disclosure, no matter how happy, sad, or disturbing the situation might be. 

The person with flat affect remains cold, indifferent, and affectionless. They are emotionally unavailable in situations where emotions should usually run high.

2. Labile affect

This form of affective state shows random changes in emotional expressions. The person shows too much emotional expression even at the small triggers.

A person displaying a labile affect shows emotions that are not at par with the situation. In other words, the emotional response will shift and the person shows mood swings.

Sometimes, the person may show that they are not in control of their emotions. There could be rapid and inconsistent mood swings that are not relevant to the situation.

3. Restricted affect

Restricted affect is almost the same as the blunted affect. It symbolizes a reduced and lesser form of emotional expression. 

In some cases, the reduction in the range of expression is revealed through no changes in facial expression. 

The tone remains still and stable, which means it doesn’t pitch high or low depending upon the intensity of the situation the person is describing. 

For example, if someone is experiencing a restricted affect, they may describe a fire break out in the neighborhood without intense feelings. 

It may appear that the person is not feeling anything very deeply about the damage that has occurred due to the fire. The display of feelings is much less than what it actually should be.

4 Shallow affect

This is almost similar in range and intensity to the blunted affect.

If a person experiences shallow affect, they will show either little emotion or no emotion in situations that demand emotional responses.

Shallow affect is seen in psychopaths and sociopaths. They do not show emotional responses that are the need of the hour.

Shallow affect causes a lack of empathy and sensitivity also.

Causes of blunted affect and associated psychiatric ailments

Blunted affect is not a standalone mental health issue. This emotional problem is the direct result of moderate to severe forms of mental disorders. 

Some of the diseases that cause blunted affect are schizophrenia, Major depression, Autism spectrum disorder, brain injuries, and many more.

The decreased emotional responses have some risk factors and immediate triggers such as the following:

  • Traumatic brain injury due to some physical accident
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Dementia
  • Bipolar personality disorder
  • Side effects of medicines such as antipsychotic drugs and antidepressants
  • An extended time of loneliness and social isolation that happens in major depression
  • Prolonged periods of emotional blunting, marked by reduced emotional reactions and responses
  • Neurological diseases lead to reduced memory function and emotional good health.

Now let us discuss some of these mental illnesses and see how they cause blunted affect:

1. Schizophrenia

All schizophrenics experience blunted affect in varying degrees. It is one of the negative symptoms of schizophrenia.

Other signs of the symptoms are rapid hallucinations, delusions or distorted thoughts, and lack of emotional expression.

Sometimes, if the intensity of the symptoms is high, the patient manifests flat affect as well. 

It means they may not show any emotions at all. A research study conducted in 1992 showed that patients suffering from schizophrenia showed blunted affect and flat affect. 

Their emotional display and facial responses were inappropriate to the situation shown on the video clippings.

As part of this same study, emotional movie clips were shown to three different groups of people. 

Out of these three groups, one group is normal people with no history of mental health issues, some had depression and the third group was schizophrenics.

After seeing the video clippings, responses of these three groups were recorded. The findings suggested that schizophrenic patients showed facial expressions that were irrelevant to the content of the clippings.

People with blunted affect showed a less emotional reaction. They could emote only for 2.7 seconds in the film, while others expressed emotions till 22.3 seconds.

Blunted affect leads to signs of depression in patients with schizophrenia. Moreover, studies have found an increased risk of suicide associated with blunted affect. 

This simply occurs due to a lack of adequate social interaction. The person remains in social isolation and craves support that may not be available at the right time.

2. Autism spectrum disorders

ASD or autism spectrum disorder causes flat affect and less emotional reactivity. The person either displays very less and limited affect or no emotional display at all.

This lack of emotions is caused by less socialization.

ASD causes a lack of social interaction, improper communication skills. Both these can limit emotional expression to a great extent. 

People with autism spectrum disorder suffer from mood swings, inappropriate affect, and blunted affect.

These people also shift their affective states. It ranges from shallow and blunt affect to flat affect as well. The person may withdraw and may not show any emotional responses.

Their feelings and facial expressions differ. For most of them, communication with others is restricted or completely absent. They do not reveal emotions through gestures and eye contact.

People with ASD speak in a flat tone. Their tonal quality does not rise and slow down according to the situation they are in. In moments of extreme happiness, they may not even put up a shallow smile on their face.

Several research findings have suggested that emotional problems of autistic people lead to socialization problems.

These people cannot understand the emotional undertone of others. They fail to connect with people emotionally.

Others may find them emotionally indifferent and unaffected. The facial expressions are shallow, numb, and do not reveal what they are really feeling.

3. Parkinson’s disease

Parkinson’s disease is a neurological illness. This disease leads to motor dysfunction. As the disease worsens, the patient is unable to move muscles of the body. 

Even the facial muscles also tighten, leading to no change in facial expressions in times of happiness and despair.

They cannot smile to share moments of happiness with others. Parkinson’s disease affects speech as well. The person may not show changes in voice modulation in moments of varying emotional intensity.

This disease leads to changes in brain functioning. Thus, a person displays blunted affect and shallow affect quite often. A gradual decline in emotional response is found in this disease.

4. Depression

Major depression leads to blunted affect. The person displays fewer emotional responses initially but as the disorder progresses, the emotional expression diminishes further.

Thus, the intensity of depression can easily be understood from blunted affect.

A person with major depression show different signs of blunted affect such as the following ones:

  • Poor eye contact when spoken to
  • Lack of interest in speaking or reacting to what others are saying
  • Facial and eye expressions are shallow and superficial
  • A monotonous flat voice that appears indifferent and non-reactive
  • Neutral expressions of the body that do not suggest any affective response
  • Lack of gestures from hands and other body parts
  • Feelings of Anhedonia, an inability to feel happy when exposed to pleasurable and joyful experiences.

5. Dementia

This condition can cause changes in the functioning of frontal and temporal lobes. A person suffering from dementia shows decreased emotional sensitivity. 

It leads to memory loss, so the person may not be able to recognize facial expressions. Thus, emotional responses are either fully missing or not as per the situation.

6. Reactive attachment disorder

This condition manifests due to a problematic parent-child relationship. Children who grow up as insecure adults may not connect with others emotionally. 

Signs of blunted affect are usually seen when they cannot relate to others through verbal and non-verbal means. 

They show decreased emotional sensitivity, or may not respond with emotions at all. In both situations, the person struggles to keep pace with emotional situations in life. 

The emotional responses may decrease over time causing several problems in daily life.

7. Post-traumatic stress disorder

PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder can cause deep-seated emotional scars. It leads to several psychiatric problems such as excess anxiety, intrusive thoughts, and a bad mood.

If depression sets in along with negative thoughts, the person displays diminished emotional responses. Blunted affect is a major symptom of PTSD. 

A person suffering from PTSD shows negligible facial expression.

If trauma response has overpowered the person, it leads to feelings of Anhedonia, meaning the inability to feel pleasure and happiness.

PTSD shows low response to aroused emotional situation. The person manifests numbness and dull feelings. Thus, facial expressions do not change while they speak about the trauma with others.

8. Side effects of medicines

Blunted affect can be caused from the side effects of various drugs. Antipsychotic and antidepressant drugs used for schizophrenia and depression can impact emotional responses. 

Blunted affect may manifest through passivity and poor facial expressions. 

9. Brain injury and neurological problems

Brain trauma caused due to accidents leads to changes in mood and emotional responses. The symptoms of blunted affect may arise suddenly or can progress gradually over a period of time.

Blunted affect and bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, is a psychiatric condition. It is marked by episodes of emotional highs and lows. 

People with bipolar suffer from blunted and flat affect. These emotional symptoms lead to their inability to feel and express emotions clearly.

They cannot understand the deepest feelings of others as well. Thus, the ability to connect with others emotionally is not possible in bipolar disorders.

Though these patients show episodes of mood swings quite often, they show blunted affect. It means neither do they express emotions verbally nor with gestures and facial expressions.

The research findings show that people with bipolar disorder cannot recognize, react, or respond to the facial expressions of others. 

Either they give a blank look to emotional stimuli or react very little. Most often the emotional reactions are shallow and devoid of empathy.

Impact of blunted affect

Blunted affect and flat emotional responses may impact all walks of a patient’s life. It leads to the following complications:

  • Poor social relationships
  • Lack of compassion and empathy
  • Inability to understand the feelings of others
  • Difficulty in knowing the real feelings of the patient
  • The facial emotions do not reveal what the patient is thinking or feeling
  • Lack of deeper emotional connection with others
  • Social isolation
  • Marked reduction in memory and other cognitive functions
  • Poor problem-solving ability
  • Dull eye contact
  • Inability to feel emotions
  • Lack of emotional expression

Blunted affect treatment

Blunted affect is the outward manifestation of an underlying medical condition. Thus, treating this health condition means treating the mental disorder that is causing the symptoms.

The therapist or doctor will do a detailed mental status examination of the patient. The patient’s condition will be medically reviewed before an official diagnosis is made. 

If there is no official diagnosis and the person is still showing signs of blunted affect, then the patient is counseled in detail to understand their detailed medical history.

Further psychological tests and clinical analysis are done to do a differential diagnosis of either schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

The treatment can be challenging for both the patient and the doctor.

The following line of treatment is usually followed:

  • If the blunted affect is caused by substance abuse, or psychiatric medicines, then stopping the medication can improve the condition.
  • For people suffering from major depression, autism, or schizophrenia, a combination of cognitive behavior therapy and antipsychotic drugs can help.
  • The person’s mood and emotional responses are recorded to understand the clinical picture and decide the medical treatment.
  • Help the patient manage the symptoms of their underlying medical condition so that their emotional responses can be improved and well run.
  • In some mental illnesses, blunted affect may remain as it is. Thus, the choice to improve emotional reactivity lie with the patient’s family members. In the case of ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), blunted affect is an innate symptom. So, the doctor can prescribe medicines to keep the symptom in check. But treating the condition fully might not be possible at times.

Blunted affect is an allied symptom of a serious psychological disorder. Thus, helping someone in overcoming blunted affect may not be as easy as it sounds. 

Treating the underlying condition can help.  But it may not cut the emotional problems completely.

The treatment plan takes a long time to show desired results. So, family members and friends of the patient are counseled and given adequate support to overcome distress and despair.

The video link shared below shows the concept of blunted affect. Do check out.

Summing Up from ‘ThePleasantMind’

We all go through times of unhappiness and despair where our emotional expressions may appear inappropriate to the stimuli. 

But if this affective state persists for an unusually long time and causes a marked reduction in communication and social interaction with others, it can lead to unhealthy mental health issues.

Blunted affect is marked by a diminished display of real emotions. It means that the facial expressions are not indicative of what the person might be really thinking or feeling at that time.

The condition is hard to overcome and may need long-term treatment with medication and psychotherapy. Most often it signifies a serious illness that needs to be looked into early.

The person should always seek medical advice if this condition is interfering with socialization and deeper human connections.

After all, feeling well is the ultimate way of coping with the condition. The earlier it is done, the better it becomes over the course of time.

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