What is Affect in psychiatry?

Updated 2 years ago on April 08, 2023

Affect (Latin affectus, "passion, mental agitation") is a psychiatric term for the external manifestation of emotions and feelings by the patient; an observable behavioral pattern that expresses a person's subjective state. Affect denotes the degree of outward intensity of emotion, the expressiveness of facial expressions, gestures and the level of speech expression; in this sense, "flattened affect" means dullness and pallor, an outward low intensity of emotion (e.g., due to schizophrenia). Affect refers to more fluctuating changes in emotional states than mood, and includes states such as elation and anger. An affective defect is either a reduced affect or a complete inability to express some emotions (sometimes even all emotions).

Affect can be described in terms of intensity, range, and mobility:

  • Intensity - the strength of emotional expressiveness;
  • Range - the variety of emotional expression;
  • Mobility - the speed and ease of switching between affects.

Affective lability refers to a state of abnormal instability of affects, in which they quickly change, are transient and easily excitable.

A mild decrease in the intensity and range of emotional expression is called "limited affect," while a significant decrease is called flattening affect and a complete decrease is called flat affect.

Adequate and inadequate affect

Adequate affect in psychiatry is defined as a state in which speech and thought coincide with the emotions expressed. Otherwise, it is considered incongruent and inadequate (e.g., when an individual laughs while discussing a sad event, and vice versa).

Mood disorders (affective disorders)

"Mood" in psychiatry refers to states such as depressed, cheerful, anxious, etc. Mood disorders are included in the ICD-10 class (F30-F39), but are alternatively called "affective disorders", being referred to in the classifier as "mood disorders (affective disorders)".

According to the DSM-5, affect is a fluctuation in emotional "weather" and mood is an emotional "climate."

In some cases, affective disorders are defined as intense manifestations of inappropriate emotions (in the context of delusional disorder), such as fear, anxiety, anger, rage, elation, or ecstasy.

Affective disorders may be accompanied by other disorders, such as delirium or catatonic disorders.

The affect of bewilderment and other meanings

Sometimes the term "affect" is used synonymously with the emotional process in general. For example, "incontinence of affect" refers to the inability to restrain manifestations of emotion; "perplexed affect" is synonymous with the symptom of confusion, which manifests itself as the patient's painful failure to understand his state (more often occurs in obscuration syndromes, such as amnesia).

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