A person may experience a temporary lack of motivation when they are overwhelmed, stressed, or burnt out. However, a sense of apathy, or lack of interest in doing anything, can be a symptom of something more severe, such as depression or Parkinson’s disease.

Lost motivation could indicate a mental health disorder, such as depression or schizophrenia. It may also occur in conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

While most people experience temporary dips in motivation at certain points in their lives, long-term or chronic apathy could be a symptom of an underlying health condition.

This article looks at potential causes of lost motivation, how to improve motivation, and when to contact a doctor.

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Burnout and chronic work-related stress can cause emotional exhaustion and depersonalization. A 2022 article also suggests that excessive stress and burnout can significantly impact a person’s motivation.

The article’s authors suggest that people experiencing burnout may find it harder to perform work-related tasks and to find the motivation for other interactions and activities.

Symptoms

According to World Health Organization (WHO), symptoms of burnout include the following:

  • reduced efficacy at work
  • feeling exhausted or depleted of energy
  • increased feelings of cynicism or negative thoughts related to work

Treatment

A 2016 article suggests the following options may help to prevent and treat burnout:

  • Changing work patterns: People may reduce burnout symptoms by making changes such as taking more breaks, achieving a better balance between work and other life aspects, and taking on less work.
  • Reaching out: Gaining support from friends, family, and colleagues may help a person manage and prevent burnout.
  • Developing coping skills: Working on coping skills such as time management and conflict resolution may help resolve burnout.
  • Improving self-understanding: Attending counseling or therapy may help a person better understand their patterns of thought and behavior.
  • Implementing relaxation strategies: Practising stress-reduction techniques, such as exercise and mindfulness, may help treat burnout.

Apathy, or loss of motivation to do anything, is a common symptom of depression. People with depression may also experience anhedonia, a significant decline or lack of pleasure or interest in almost all activities.

A 2018 article links anhedonia to low levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is part of the reward response in the brain.

Other symptoms of depression, such as fatigue and stress, may also affect motivation.

Symptoms

People with depression may experience the following:

Treatment

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), treatment for depression may include:

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Find more links and local resources.

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Apathy is a common symptom of schizophrenia, a severe mental health condition that can cause changes in a person’s behavior, thoughts, and perceptions.

People with schizophrenia may lack motivation because they have reduced reward sensitivity and may not expect activities to provide enjoyment.

Symptoms

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), schizophrenia symptoms fall into three main categories:

  • Psychotic: These symptoms affect people’s perceptions and experiences of the world. They include hallucinations and delusions.
  • Negative: These symptoms include lack of motivation, low energy, difficulty planning and following through with activities, and difficulty feeling pleasure.
  • Cognitive: These symptoms can include difficulty processing information, making decisions, and paying attention.

Treatment

The NIMH highlights the following treatment options for someone with schizophrenia:

Apathy is a common symptom of Parkinson’s disease and is present in 17–60% of cases.

According to a 2018 article, apathy may occur in people with this condition due to dysfunctions of the dopaminergic system, which is responsible for motivation and anticipating rewards, and dysfunction in parts of the brain that cause apathy, such as the ventral striatum.

Symptoms

As well as apathy, symptoms of Parkinson’s disease include:

Treatment

Treatment options for Parkinson’s include:

  • Medication: Certain drugs may help — such as levodopa, dopamine agonists, and enzyme inhibitors to increase dopamine; amantadine to reduce involuntary movements; and anticholinergic drugs to reduce stiffness and tremors.
  • Deep brain stimulation: During deep brain stimulation, a surgeon will implant electrodes into part of the brain and connect them to a device that they implant in the chest. The device stimulates areas of the brain to help reduce involuntary movement, stiffness, and tremors.
  • Other therapies: Massage, exercises, a specific diet, and occupational, speech, and physical therapies may help manage symptoms.

Apathy occurs in up to 70% of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Functional and structural changes in areas of the brain, such as the ventral striatum and medial thalamus, may cause apathy.

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease range from mild to severe. They can include:

  • memory loss
  • loss of spontaneity
  • poor judgment
  • getting lost
  • difficulty completing simple tasks
  • changes in mood and personality
  • increased confusion
  • social withdrawal
  • difficulty with language
  • hallucinations and delusions
  • impulsive or inappropriate behavior
  • repetitive behavior
  • inability to communicate
  • urinary and bowel incontinence

Treatment

The United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) lists the following treatment options for Alzheimer’s disease:

Apathy is a common complication in people who have had ischemic or hemorrhagic strokes.

The area of the brain a stroke affects may influence the likelihood of apathy. A stroke affecting the brain’s medial frontal cortex may increase the risk of apathy.

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of stroke include a sudden onset of the following:

  • confusion, trouble understanding speech, or trouble speaking
  • numbness or weakness in the face, leg, or arm, especially on one side of the body
  • severe headache
  • difficulty seeing from one or both eyes
  • dizziness, loss of balance and coordination, and difficulty walking

Treatment

It is important to seek stroke treatment as soon as possible. Treatment may include:

  • thrombolytic drugs for ischemic stroke
  • blood thinners
  • surgery to remove a blood clot
  • surgery to repair a broken blood vessel for a hemorrhagic stroke
  • rehabilitation, such as physical, occupational, and speech therapy

If a general lack of motivation is temporary and not due to a medical condition, the following tips may help a person boost their motivation:

  • take regular breaks from work or stressful activities
  • practice organizational techniques, such as scheduling and making to-do lists
  • use relaxation techniques
  • implement a reward system
  • ensure basic needs are met before attending to tasks, such as drinking water, eating a healthy snack, or resting
  • spend time outdoors
  • break down tasks into smaller, easier tasks
  • exercise regularly
  • reach out to a friend or family member for support

Someone should contact a doctor if their lack of motivation becomes chronic or affects their daily life.

An individual should also contact a doctor if they experience symptoms besides a loss of motivation, such as symptoms of depression or other neurological conditions.

It is normal for people to experience a lack of motivation sometimes. However, when apathy becomes chronic or severe, it may indicate a serious underlying condition.

Loss of motivation may indicate burnout, depression, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease, or Alzheimer’s disease. It may also be a complication of conditions such as a stroke.

A person should contact a doctor if their lack of motivation is severe or chronic or if they experience additional symptoms.