The constricted and blunted affect are two forms of expressing emotions and feelings to others. So that we avoid any misunderstanding, it is important that we understand what these forms are, what is the difference between them, and what do they signify.
Disclaimer ~ This PsycholoGenie article is for informative purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for expert medical advice.
Carrying out a series of observations and asking specific questions that center around the varied forms of affect and mood (among other concepts) are used as a common tool in The Mental Status Examination (MSE). This is a standardized procedure that is used for evaluating the subject’s mental and emotional functioning at the time the subject is seen by the mental health professional.
Human beings use facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, hand movements, and body language to express their feelings and emotions. When these emotions are observable, they are termed as affect. One’s affect would therefore include emotions like anger, euphoria, and sadness.
A normal range of emotions and expressions is known as the broad affect. However, what is considered a normal range of affect may differ from one culture to the other, from one household to the other, and from one situation to the other. Some cultures―or families, for that matter―might consider the excessive use of hand gestures, or very loud expressions of emotions, normal, whereas others might not.
There are many forms of affect that are observed these include the constricted affect and the blunted affect, as well as the flat affect, labile affect, and inappropriate affect.
Constricted affect, also known as restricted affect, is used to describe a mild restriction in the intensity or the range of the display of emotions or feelings. Which means that a person holds back and does not display his emotions with complete intensity. His emotional state is not full range.
A constricted affect example could be given as a man who describes a gruesome accident that he was in but displays only mild discomfort in expressions, when, in fact, his reaction should have included outrage or anguish.
A severe restriction in the display and intensity of emotions is known as the blunted affect. It is characterized by an individual’s inability to express his feelings either verbally or non-verbally, especially when related to issues that would normally illicit the response. In a blunted affect, the expressions and other gestures are quite rare, and there is restricted facial or vocal expressions.
A blunted affect is not considered to be a psychiatric disorder by itself, but it can be one of the main symptoms of certain mental illnesses like schizophrenia, brain damage, depression, autistic spectrum disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Along with these, it is also observed in people who consume antipsychotic medication, and may come about as a withdrawal symptom of certain drugs like Benzodiazepine.
One of the most common blunted affect examples is that of the ‘thousand-yard-stare’ that has been exhibited by some soldiers who have witnessed the horrors of war. This wide-eyed, unfocused gaze has been described as being brought on by blunted affect. Many soldiers have been observed to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which is often brought on by the trauma of war and an attempt to disassociate from the same―the condition being a classic example of blunted affect.
Blunted affect vs constricted affect can be observed in the way that when a person displays a constricted affect, it can have certain consequences on his behavior, which in turn could lead to the development of blunted affect. Thus, one can be caused because of the other. The difference is in the degree of the emotions (rather, the lack of emotions), in which constricted affect brings about a mild restriction, whereas blunted affect brings about a severe restriction.
Other Forms of Affect
Other than the constricted and blunted affect, there are other forms of affect that can be observed as well.
Also known as flattened affect, flat affect is characterized by an almost zero range of display of emotions, or a complete lack of emotional expression. The face is immobile (as well as the body), the voice is flat and monotonous, and there are no other non-verbal expressions or actions either.
Labile affect is used to describe emotional instability or dramatic mood swings in a person. This is characterized by a stark disparity in the emotions that are displayed, which are severely out-of-context from the situation. For example, laughing uncontrollably while describing something painful or sad, or vice versa.
Also known as incongruent affect, inappropriate affect is characterized by an affect that is completely contradictory and conflicting with the content of the patient’s ideas and speech or with the overall situation.
Since blunted affect is not a disorder by itself, there cannot be a treatment provided for the same. However, since it can be a symptom of mental disorders like schizophrenia and depression, a treatment carried out for these disorders (in the form of medication and therapy) will bring about a positive change―in the sense that a patient will begin to demonstrate a fuller emotional range, may become more expressive and animated, and will be better able to engage with people and situations.
Even though what is considered ‘appropriate’ or ‘normal’ emotional reactions might differ from culture to culture, and sometimes within the culture itself, blunted and constricted affect are not considered normal in their range and display of emotions. In fact, the observation of constricted, and blunted affect, can be used to diagnose the emergence of a mental disorder. In that way, it helps in the diagnosis of these and could prove to be a valuable tool in early detection.