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Blunted affect is the scientific term describing a lack of emotional reactivity on the part of an individual. It is manifest as a failure to express feelings either verbally or non-verbally, even when talking about issues that would normally be expected to engage the emotions. Expressive gestures are rare and there is little animation in facial expression or in vocal inflection.
Victims of post-traumatic stress syndrome are often said to display blunted affect. Veterans of intense combat have been described as having the thousand-yard stare (or thousand-yard gaze). Some of these veterans suffer from a disorder once referred to as shell shock and may experience a number of symptoms, including recurring nightmares, hypervigilance, and avoidance of situations that may cause distress. Others have developed less emotional reactivity as an arguably natural reaction to stress. Those displaying on this end of the spectrum may self-report dissociation but no psychological distress per se.
People diagnosed with this disorder often endure a chronic course of blunted affect with the onset being subtle yet considerable.
Blunted affect is very similar to anhedonia. Anhedonia is the decrease or cessation of all feelings of pleasure (which thus affects enjoyment, happiness, fun, interest, and satisfaction). In the case of anhedonia, emotions relating to pleasure will not be expressed as much or at all because they are literally not experienced or are decreased. A person with anhedonia may be unable to laugh or smile, for example. Conversation will not be pleasurably stimulating for a person with extreme anhedonia, and thus that person may not be as responsive to conversation or its emotional subject matter. Both blunted affect and anhedonia are considered negative symptoms of schizophrenia, meaning that they are indicative of a lack of something. There are some other negative symptoms of schizophrenia which include avolition, alogia and catatonic behaviour.
The precise boundary between the generally positive personality trait "serious" and the generally pathological "blunted affect" is impossible to describe precisely because it is culture specific and relies on subjective values.
One final consideration worth noting is that adults generally display more controlled affect than children. This suggests blunting one's affect may be a normal part of maturation.
Affective flattening is a general category which includes diminishment of, or absence of, emotional expressiveness. It is sometimes inappropriately equated with blunted or restricted affect. "Blunted" is affect that is present but only with minimal degrees of emotions evident. "Restriction" is a holding back as in alexithymia. "Restricted" is not as severe as in flattened or blunted affect.
Constricted affect is an affect type that represents mild reduction in the range and intensity of emotional expression. If the client is consistently euphoric and all intensity is congruent but is unaffected by content, this would be still considered constricted to a euphoric affect.
Labile affect refers to the pathological expression of laughter, crying, or smiling. It is also known as "Pseudobulbar Affect", "Emotional Lability", "Pathological Laughter and Crying", or, historically, "Emotional Incontinence". An individual may find themselves laughing uncontrollably at something that is only moderately funny, being unable to stop themselves for several minutes.
Qualities describing the affective response include:
- concordance (expressed emotion seems to fit what patient is saying, doing) appropriateness, responsiveness (expressed emotion sensibly follows from the precipitating stimuli)
- full range/stable (normal variation of emotions during exam)
- restricted, constricted range (limited variability of emotion during exam)
- labile (type or intensity shifts suddenly, rapidly)
- blunted (few emotions expressed, low intensity)
- flat (affect is even less intense than blunted; patient may appear inanimate)
- exaggerated intensity
Affect and low-functioning schizophrenia
Hoschel (2001)  describes the responses of schizophrenia because "emotional information might be related to low social/emotional functioning of the individual with schizophrenia." Referring to clients who are considered "low functioning" (schizophrenics), manifestations of the internal stressors become apparent through displacement activities. Alexithymic patients provide clues via assessment presentation which may be indicative of emotional arousal.
The displacement and lack of cognitive responses may be enough for descriptive clinical documentation, but more is usually required. It communicates in ways that are beyond the 'normal' interpretive mechanics. Our description of the emotional component especially with alexithymia makes the therapist more like a detective. One must possess the tools of description and be fluent with its appropriate application.
- George Stein; Greg Wilkinson (1 January 2007). Seminars in General Adult Psychiatry. RCPsych Publications. pp. 174–. ISBN 9781904671442. http://books.google.com/books?id=6PGzHFuS1xkC&pg=PA174. Retrieved 17 December 2010.
- Irving B. Weiner; George Stricker; John A. Schinka; Thomas A. Widiger (2003). Handbook of Psychology: Clinical psychology. John Wiley and Sons. p. 66. ISBN 9780471392637. http://books.google.com/books?id=dVauuLKZar4C&pg=PA66. Retrieved 12 December 2010.
- Höschel K, Irle E (2001). "Emotional priming of facial affect identification in schizophrenia". Schizophr Bull 27 (2): 317–27. PMID 11354598.
- Troisi A, Belsanti S, Bucci AR, Mosco C, Sinti F, Verucci M (January 2000). "Affect regulation in alexithymia: an ethological study of displacement behavior during psychiatric interviews". J. Nerv. Ment. Dis. 188 (1): 13–8. doi:10.1097/00005053-200001000-00003. PMID 10665455.