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What Is a Flat Affect?

An expressionless woman with flat affect.
Learning how to overcome flat affect can bolster relationships and improve social skills.
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  • Written By: Tara Barnett
  • Edited By: Jacob Harkins
  • Last Modified Date: 20 November 2014
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Flat affect is a condition in which a person does not display emotions to the degree that other members of his or her culture would normally exhibit. It is used loosely to mean a dampening of these emotions, but clinically, it is usually reserved for more serious cases where patients may appear nearly inanimate or lacking emotional function.

Performance of affect is culturally specific, and so there is no single standard by which one may be judged as flat. This condition is often associated with depression and schizophrenia, but it may also be involved in certain illnesses that affect the facial muscles, preventing afflicted people from expressing emotion but not dampening his or her perception of it.

When a person is described as having flat affect, this does not always imply that that he or she does not experience emotion internally. Many schizophrenics identify feeling a roller coaster of emotions that they cannot turn outward, which often proves a source of great frustration. People with facial disorders may have no problem expressing themselves in words and gestures, and emotions may be apparent to those who know them well enough to recognize the modified emotional signifiers. While someone who has this condition may, in fact, not feel emotion, use of the term does not require this to be true.

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Many people who display flat affect, however, also feel dampened emotions. This may be the result of a decrease in feeling of pleasure, or an overall feeling of removal from the world. People who display fewer emotions may feel like they are retreating into their own minds or feel general apathy towards the world, often as a result of another mental condition.

In some societies, displaying little emotion is considered a positive trait and is not a symptom or disorder, but rather a learned way of presenting one's self that is important in social interaction. This demonstrates not only that this unemotional appearance is dependent on what a culture considers normal, but also that affect can be controlled and modified with practice by most people.

Resolving this problem is usually dependent on treating the underlying condition that caused the decreased display of emotions in the first place. With enough motivation and commitment, however, some people can have certain amounts of success training themselves to physically display emotion to some degree through consciously deciding to do so. While this may sometimes appear fake to onlookers, with practice, it can be as convincing as genuine, unconscious affect displays. This method does not treat the emotional disconnect causing a person to display flat affect in the first place, and is therefore not a cure, but it can help patients to achieve better social relationships and blend in better with other members of society.

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