Blunted affect is the failure of a person to display emotion in a culturally-appropriate way. While it is not considered to be a psychiatric disorder in and of itself, it can be a symptom of several known disorders, including post-traumatic stress syndrome, schizophrenia, depression, and various autistic spectrum disorders. During a psychological evaluation, an observed blunted affect can help steer the clinician to a diagnosis.
A blunted affect can be a sign of a mental disorder, and a person's failure to express emotion in what is considered to be a "normal" fashion can be confusing to others. It is important to note, however, that an appropriate affect is often culturally based. Some cultures frown upon excessive expressions of emotion and consider self control, even of one's facial expressions, to be a sign of maturity.
When a mental health clinician evaluates a patient, the patient's affect, or how they externally express their emotions, is usually carefully observed. Patients who do not display emotions appropriately may be diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder if they have other symptoms that correspond with that disorder. The reasons for a blunted affect can vary considerably. This has often been observed in soldiers who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; mental health professionals often note that the trauma of war can result in the solider attempting to disassociate from what he has experienced. Some have commented on the "thousand-yard stare" exhibited by some soldiers, which is an unfocused, wide-eyed gaze that can characterize blunted affect.
While observing affect display is an important part of mental health diagnosis, culturally sensitive mental health professionals may attempt to make these observations with an understanding of cultural context. This is because appropriate affect can be subjective, depending on one's culture. In some cultures, open displays of emotion, both positive and negative, are considered appropriate and healthy. In other cultures, adults, especially, are expected to control external displays of emotion, even though they may internally experience a full and normal range of emotions.
Since blunted affect is often a symptom of a mental disorder, the condition itself usually is not treated, but a patient may eventually demonstrate more robust emotional expression as a result of effective treatment for the underlying condition. For example, if a patient with schizophrenia receives therapy and medication, he may become more animated and better able to engage with the outside world. Similarly, a patient with a personality or autistic spectrum disorder may respond well to therapy and begin to emote more freely. At the same time, cultural expectations as well as the personality of the individual receiving treatment are also likely to have an impact on any reversal of blunted affect.