What is Affect?
Affect refers to how we express emotions on the outside. This can be a smile, a laugh, a stare, or your tone of voice. Affect is our facial expressions or movements that can specify emotions. We might use affect to interpret what other people are feeling. In recovery, you might hear someone say, my inside needs to match my outside. This is referring to affect and ensuring that your feelings match your outside expressions of emotions.
Mental health professionals use the term affect to describe how someone presents themselves during therapy sessions. A few of the terms used include guarded, expressive, happy, or open. Therapists can generally tell how someone is feeling by looking at affect. There are different types of affect used in the mental health community including broad, limited, blunted, flat, or labile.
Broad affect is used when a person can express a variety of emotions appropriately. The person can feel happy and their affect is a smile and open body language. They can also express sadness with tears and excitement with wide eyes and a wide smile.
Limited affect means that a person has a limited range of affect. If this person were happy, they may not indicate this with a smile. Blunted affect occurs when limited affect becomes more severe. The expressions people exhibit are more absent and not quite appropriate for the feelings experienced.
If a person has flat affect, they will not express emotion either through facial expressions or body language. Labile affect is an unstable affect and not appropriate for the situation. A person with labile affect may laugh uncontrollably at someone or something that is truly not that funny.
Affect can tell a therapist a lot about a person and can even indicate an underlying mental health disorder. Depression can be seen in those with limited affect and bipolar disorder can be seen with labile affect. A person with bipolar disorder may show excited emotions or body movements; however, these emotions and movements are actually the mania associated with the bipolar disorder. The therapist should always inquire about feelings that appear inappropriate for what the person is illustrating through affect or body language. The therapist can also use affect to engage a person in dialogue about internal feelings versus what their affect and body language are indicating.
Like the old saying, 90% of what we communicate is through facial expressions and body language; therefore, make sure your insides match your outsides.