Insights into Psychology

What Is… Psychomotor Retardation

effects of psychomotor retardation in depression

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms. This week’s term is psychomotor retardation.

Psychomotor retardation (PMR) is one of the less common but more outwardly observable symptoms of depression. It’s one of the DSM-5’s symptom criteria in a major depressive episode, which can occur in the context of major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, or schizoaffective disorder. It involves a slowing of both thinking and physical movement, and the slowed movement is observable by others.

PMR has been described as far back as ancient Greek times.

What does psychomotor retardation look like?

PMR can affect multiple aspects of movement, including:

  • slowed movements that are noticeable by others
  • walking is slow, with abnormal gait
  • lack of facial expressiveness of emotion (“flat affect”)
  • decreased eye contact, fixed gaze
  • speech changes: decreased volume, slow and monotonous speech with increased pauses, delayed verbal responses and spontaneous speech
  • slumped posture
  • reduced movement in the trunk and proximal limbs, i.e. upper legs and arms

Non-clinicians may notice PMR in others, but not understand what they’re seeing. My experience has been that general practitioners don’t tend to be familiar with what PMR (or at least severe PMR) looks like, and I have to tell them what they’re seeing.

In this video, I’m not moving far enough to get much of a sense of how ridiculously slow my walking is, but my speech impairment is quite obvious, as is the flat affect. When I’m well, I smile frequently and have done a fair bit of public speaking.


It isn’t known exactly how PMR happens biologically, but it’s been suggested that changes in neural circuits in the prefrontal cortex may affect the basal ganglia, an area of the brain thats’s involved in regulating movement. The neurotransmitter dopamine appears to play a major role. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which connects the brain and the adrenal glands, has also been implicated.

There’s more on this topic in the post The Biology of Psychomotor Retardation.

Melancholic depression

Psychomotor retardation occurs most often in the melancholic subtype of depression, and also when there are psychotic features. There appears to be a stronger biological element and less of a link to situational factors.

One study found that a higher number of previous depressive episodes was associated with more severe psychomotor symptoms. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) seems to be particularly helpful for PMR.

What does PMR feel like?

Psychomotor retardation feels a lot like moving through molasses, both mentally and physically. It’s not a matter of lack of energy; if anything, I find that moving so slowly produces fatigue rather than the other way around, since moving feels like I need to push through physical resistance.

I’ve always been aware of PMR when it’s happening, although that awareness doesn’t help me do anything about it. It feels like my body just can’t go any faster. When it’s mild, it’s mostly walking that’s affected, but when it’s bad, it has a significant impact on my speech. Words are hard and slow to get out.

Making eye contact requires more mental energy than I have available. If I’m concentrating on getting words out, I find myself looking up at the ceiling, which you can see me doing in the video. The video also shows that I blink rapidly as I’m fishing for words. I actually hadn’t realized that prior to watching the video, but as far as I can tell, it seems to be as I’m looking for the motor scripts for words rather than looking for the words themselves.

Slowed psychomotor activity has appeared off and on throughout the course of my illness. It was particularly bad during my second hospitalization, which lasted two months. As time has passed, though, there’s been a pattern of abrupt onset (or worsening) of PMR in response to major environmental stressors, which seems like it may relate to the HPA-axis/cortisol stress response. It generally starts when I wake up the day following the stressor, and tends to last a few weeks. In the past, the PMR would resolve between stress-induced spikes, but that’s no longer the case.

Is psychomotor retardation a symptom you’ve experienced with your illness? Have you noticed any patterns with it?

You can find the rest of the what is… series in the Psychology Corner.


book cover: Managing the Depression Puzzle, Second Edition, by Ashley L. Peterson

Managing the Depression Puzzle takes a holistic look at the different potential pieces that might fit into your unique depression puzzle.

It’s published by MH@H Books and available on Amazon and Google Play.

11 thoughts on “What Is… Psychomotor Retardation”

  1. I have this (without cognitive function being affected) but I never knew what it WAS. I thought I was just getting ‘old’. Wow. Depression has a myriad of symptoms, many of which are never shared with the patient apparently. Now I’ll worry less at least, on a bad day when I can’t move very well or at all without a lot of pain and feeling like I’m tripping over my own feet. I’ll know it’s my brain chemistry doing that. Thanks Ashleyleia!

  2. I still can’t believe you were treated that way at the ER. How ridiculous! Also – I haven’t ever heard of this so this post was very interesting to me!

  3. With the two episodes of depression which were more severe than the others, which includes the one I had following withdrawal from long-term antidepressants, this was definitely something I noticed. Kind of a wading-through-treacle feeling both mentally and physically. I also noticed very specific cognitive deficits like difficulty sequencing tasks, which took a surprisingly long time to recover and didn’t exactly parallel the improvement in mood.

  4. I am not sure if I have grasped all that is within this article. I may have to read this over several times.
    I do agree though about “stigma”. I find it mostly among people when I mention “bi-polar”. It seems that they have in their mind what a person who is bi-polar should act like, talk like. This can be attributed to our overblown media which has no understanding of the basics when it comes to mental health.

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