We all have certain emotional ticks and gestures that speak of our emotions when we can’t use our words. Some of us laugh or even get a crinkle near our eyes when we are pleased while others may have an indifferent or neutral expression even when they are overjoyed.
There’s nothing wrong with having a cold and indifferent expression. I can tell because I’ve been accused of having an arrogant “look” while all I did was listen to a conversation with a neutral expression. If you can relate to this experience then it could be just a personality trait, however, it could also be a flat affect.
Flat affect can cause you to not express emotions the way you should or are expected. For example, in a comic situation, you don’t crack a smile or laugh like you’re expecting can be called flat affect.
This condition is often a symptom of other mental health disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, and depression.
Read on below to learn the meaning of flat affect, the signs, causes, and how you can treat flat affect.
What Is Flat Affect?
Affect can be defined as your ability to express your emotions. Like the example I gave above, how you show your emotions such as happiness, fear, or anger, can be referred to as “Affect”. Beyond the physical expression of emotions, Affect can also include gestures, body cues, body language, and tone of voice.
When it comes to flat affect definition, it can mean a lack of or low emotional expression to life events – no matter how small or large. For instance, If I crack a good joke and everyone but you laugh or give a cue to your emotion, then it could be referred to as a flat affect.
Signs Of Flat Affect
Just because you struggle with flat affect doesn’t mean that you don’t feel emotions or you lack the ability to express emotions. Flat affect means that what you feel inside doesn’t often match your reaction outside.
I mean, imagine what your loved ones would feel if they threw you a surprise party and instead of meeting with a pleasantly shocked and excited reaction, they’re met with a bored or indifferent one?
Some common signs of flat affect can include:
Seeming to lack interest
Avoiding direct eye contact
Indifferent body language, gestures, or body cues
Impassive facial expressions
What Causes Flat Affect?
While there may be a lack of evidence to prove what exactly causes flat affect, researchers believe that your brain’s chemical imbalance may be a contributing factor. While flat affect is commonly linked with schizophrenia, there might be other causes of flat affect as well.
Some common flat affect causes can be;
Antidepressants: Certain medications can cause flat affect as evidenced in a 2017 study where more than 3000 participants were reviewed.
Autism: Autistic people may also struggle with flat affect and respond to social interactions.
Dementia: Dementia is a disorder that can cause changes in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, which can cause flat affect in dementia patients.
Depression: If you’re living on the depression spectrum, then you are likely to struggle with flat affect. More often than not, flat affect may manifest itself alongside anhedonia. Not always though.
Facial Paralysis: If you have facial paralysis or other muscle disorder, then it could also cause a delay in physical emotional expression.
Parkinson’s: In a 2021 study, it was found that people living with Parkinson’s can also struggle with a decline in facial expression which can cause flat affect in many.
Schizophrenia: People with schizophrenia often have a low ability to express their emotions properly which also causes them to fail to pick up the emotional cues of others, causing fault affect.
Traumatic Brain Injury: More than 62% of people with brain injury are likely to struggle with shifting emotional expression and this kind of shifting can include flat affect.
Flat Affect vs. Emotional Blunting
Many people may confuse flat affect with emotional blunting, but they are not the same thing. Emotional blunting can also be a symptom of many mental health disorders.
It is defined as having a diminished emotional response; however, flat affect means you can’t feel an emotional response to stimuli and can’t show the required emotional expression either.
However, there is another thing we need to pay attention to. Flat vs. Blunted Affect. While these two also exist on the same spectrum, there’s a difference between flat and blunted affect.
Blunted affect is a muted emotional response. For example; giving a small smile or smirk in response to a joke instead of laughter. Flat affect is the lack of emotional response. For example; giving a neutral or an almost cold look instead of smiling at a joke.
How To Treat Flat Affect?
Flat affect can be treated! With the help of the right treatment and support plan, you can treat this symptom of many mental health disorders. Of course, it is highly recommended that you speak to a professional about the right treatment option.
Here are some of the flat affect treatment options;
1. Psychotherapy: Therapy is usually the first line of treatment when it comes to flat affect. If you’re struggling with this condition, then talking to a professional might help you narrow down your causes as well as find the right course of treatment.
2. Medications: If certain medications are causing flat affect, then your doctor may switch them or get you started on a different medication.
3. Improving Social Skills: Improving your social skills can also help you learn how to express your emotions properly in social interactions. This includes improving body language as well.
4. Speech Training: As one of the signs of flat affect is a flat voice, speech training and therapy can help you work on your tone of voice and respond to social situations properly.
5. Counseling: If flat affect is affecting your relationships, then you can reach out to a couple’s counselor and learn how you can express your emotions to your partner. With this, your partner can also learn how to connect with you if you have a flat affect.
Flat affect can make you feel like an outcast and can even pose a communication barrier. With the right treatment and help, you can work on your emotional expression. Don’t worry though, because there’s always hope for recovery.
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