Avolition, as a symptom of various forms of psychopathology, is the decrease in the motivation to initiate and perform self-directed purposeful activities. Such activities that appear to be neglected usually include routine activities, including hobbies, going to work and/or school, and most notably, engaging in social activities. A person experiencing avolition may stay at home for long periods of time, rather than seeking out work or peer relations.
People with avolition often want to complete certain tasks but lack the ability to initiate behaviours necessary to complete them. Avolition is most commonly seen as a symptom of some other disorder, but might be considered a primary clinical disturbance of itself (or as a coexisting second disorder) related to disorders of diminished motivation. In 2006, avolition was identified as a negative symptom of schizophrenia by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and have been observed in patients with bipolar disorder as well as resulting from trauma.
Avolition is sometimes mistaken for other, similar symptoms also affecting motivation, such as aboulia, anhedonia and asociality, or strong general disinterest. For example, aboulia is also a restriction in motivation and initiation, but characterized by an inability to set goals or make decisions and considered a disorder of diminished motivation. In order to provide effective treatment, the underlying cause of avolition (if any) has to be identified and it is important to properly differentiate it from other symptoms, even though they might reflect similar aspects of mental illness.
Social and clinical implications
Implications from avolition often result in social deficits. Not being able to initiate and perform purposeful activities can have many implications for a person with avolition. By disrupting interactions with both familiar and unfamiliar people, it jeopardizes the patient's social relations. When part of a severe mental illness, avolition have been reported, in first person accounts, to lead to physical and mental inability to both initiate and maintain relationships, as well as work, eat, drink or even sleep.
Clinically, it may be difficult to engage an individual experiencing avolition in active participation of psychotherapy. Patients are also faced with the stresses of coping with and accepting a mental illness and the stigma that often accompanies such a diagnosis and its symptoms. Regarding schizophrenia, the American Psychiatric Association reported in 2013 that there currently are "no treatments with proven efficacy for primary negative symptoms" (such as avolition). Together with schizophrenia's chronic nature, such facts added to the outlook of never getting well, might further implicate feelings of hopelessness and similar in patients as well as their friends and family.
Although medication is the first-line treatment for most psychiatric disorders, it does not always improve every aspect of a patient's life, and for the negative symptoms in schizophrenia, the responses to anti-psychotics are less favourable than for positive symptoms. As a result, psychotherapy might be an alternative for the treatment of these symptoms, even if medication has a good effect on other manifestations of the disorder.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), is the kind of psychotherapy that shows most promise in treating avolition (and other negative symptoms of schizophrenia), but more research is needed in the area. CBT focuses on understanding how thoughts and feelings influence behaviour, in order to help individuals develop methods and strategies to better handle the implications of their disorder. Some research suggests that CBT focusing on social skills and practice of interpersonal situations, like job interviews, seeing a doctor (to discuss medication, for example), or interacting with friends and co-workers, as well as seemingly simple things like riding a bus, might reduce negative symptoms of schizophrenia and be beneficial to patients with avolition.
Other forms of psychotherapy might also complement the role of medication and help patients, their families, and friends to work through emotional and other challenges of living with a chronic psychological disorder, including avolition.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fifth edition. Arlington, VA, American Psychiatric Association
- Castonguay, L., & Oltmanns, T. (2013). General Issues in Understanding and Treating Psychopathology. Psychopathology: From Science to Clinical Practice (pp. 5–6). New York: Guildford Publications.
- Marin, R. S., & Wilkosz, P. A. (2005). Disorders of Diminished Motivation. Focus on Clinical Practice and Research, 20(4), 377-388. Retrieved from http://www.yaroslavvb.com/papers/marin-disorders.pdf
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