Anhedonia 101

One of the more common symptoms of depression is what is known in psychology circles as “anhedonia”. Most people see this word and go “huh?” then continue their lives. However for those people who experience anhedonia, it’s an incredibly debilitating aspect of depression and is one that more people need to understand. Without that understanding, others can make suggestions that seem like impossibilities, or simply say things that are cruel without realizing it.

Anhedonia is a lack of pleasure in in what would typically or in the past have been enjoyable activities. It is often found in depression as well as some other mental illnesses. Unfortunately this is one of the elements of depression that often gets overlooked in the face of things like low self esteem, isolation, irritated mood, or low energy, however anhedonia can play a huge role in all the other elements of depression because it makes it nearly impossible to find activities that will alleviate feelings of depression.

Anhedonia can feel like a lot of things. For some people it’s a lack of interest or motivation in doing things. Nothing sounds appealing. For as miserable as it feels to lie around in bed all day, it feels as if getting up would be just as bad and you’d be exhausted and put out by doing it. Other times, it might be that you can motivate yourself to get up and do something, but no matter how hard you try you can’t become engaged in the activity. You’ll watch a movie but never lose yourself in the plot, you’ll try to have a conversation and constantly find your mind somewhere else, bored and frustrated and unhappy. You might try to do something you’ve always loved, like exercise, or music, and find that no matter how much you do it or how hard you try, your mood does not rise when you engage in the activity. Or even worse, you might try to do something and feel completely detached. This can lead to some intense frustration and anger, as well as potential social anxiety (how hard is it to hang out with people when you can’t join in their jokes or games?)

Anhedonia is hard to describe because it doesn’t make events bad. It’s not as if your favorite activities necessarily suddenly cause anxiety or depression. They may even be entirely neutral. The problem is that you don’t get any sense of fulfillment out of doing them. This is particularly difficult when you lose the sense of mastery or accomplishment that you may be used to getting from completing tasks. Oftentimes it’s the sense of pride or accomplishment you get from doing things that helps you to solidify your self identity. That in turn with things that you enjoy creates your personality. If you lose both of those things, you can feel unmoored, as if you don’t know who you are or what way to turn anymore because you have lost all bearings.

Many of the remedies for depression include telling someone to get out of the house, increasing socializing, finding activities that are relaxing or restful, doing things that make you feel grounded, connected, or joyful. The difficulty with anhedonia is that it makes nearly all of these things impossible. How on earth are you supposed to fight a nasty low mood if nothing makes you feel good?

An additional element of the frustration of anhedonia is that it can lead to some serious hopelessness. Oftentimes we hold on to certain things in the midst of hard times: love for family or friends, a particular activity that truly drives us, or important work. Something about anhedonia makes it feel like these things have been pulled out from under you. They’re still there, but somehow the emotional pull of them is gone. You can feel broken, as if nothing will ever bring you joy again. Without any indication that your mental state might change and allow you to feel pleasure again, it’s hard to have hope that your life will improve.

Anhedonia can also make someone suffering from depression seem cranky, unpleasant, and nagging to be around. They might complain about things, they may seem unhappy all the time, they may come across as a drama queen. Please remember that someone else’s depression is not about you, and that while it may be a pain in your ass to deal with, it is much more difficult for them to have to be experiencing this lack of pleasure all the time. Patience is a major virtue when it comes to depression.

Overall, anhedonia is one of the more difficult elements of depression because it can underpin and exacerbate almost every other element of depression. Unfortunately there’s very little education done about it and many people don’t even know what the word means. It can help to understand yourself if you’re going through it, to have more hope, and to have better tactics for fighting it if you know about anhedonia, and if you’re a support person it can lead to perhaps more patience and less guilt. If you have any more questions about the internal experience of anhedonia, please ask away (although I can’t speak for everyone, just myself), or if you have experiences to share I’d love to hear them in comments.

10 thoughts on “Anhedonia 101

  1. Josephine says:

    I’ve also noticed that some experiencing this are extremely intelligent.
    I really do believe that at some point you can become desensitised to materials that are not at all stimulating. For a famous person, your mind may also need to preserve some energy…simply meeting and having to interact with sooooo many individuals who want your attention each day would no doubt be draining over many years. I have complete understanding for a star’s need to disconnect at anytime for the sake of self-preservation. I do it with family on some weekends…no phone etc…what’s the worst that can happen??? They send a telegram or message via bird or turn up on my doorstep.

  2. lilaimy92 says:

    Anhedonia is horrible. You just lose interest in doing things you once used to love. I’m a writer for example, but for a while I’ve the interest in it. What’s even worse is that it’s hard to find someone who understands. However, for a while, I’ve been trying to figure out if I should subscribe to psychiatric treatment.

  3. […] thing that I dislike the most about depression is anhedonia. I get anhedonia like nobody’s business. For those who don’t know, anhedonia is a loss […]

  4. […] example if all I want is to lie in bed and do nothing (as has been the case recently), I know that anhedonia is one of the problems, and that what I’m really craving is something that makes me feel […]

  5. CD says:

    I think this is what i suffer from. I have been diagnosed with depresssion and take medication for it. However i find it hard to feel love for my boyfriend. Even though i know i love him. Does this sound familiar. All i want is to get my feelings back. Any advice?

    • oj27 says:

      Hey thanks for the comment. That sounds really really tough. This is a huge topic, so my first suggestion would be to find a therapist to talk the situation through with. That said, I think it’s good to figure out why you know you love him and what you love about him. That can help remind you why you want to be with the person and give you the motivation to make it through this really difficult time. If you really believe that this is a symptom of your depression, then you have a strong motivation to get meds and therapy and work to get your brain in healthy, working order again. I’m sending all the best thoughts to you. Feel free to email if you want to talk more.

  6. Jemma says:

    I have been in a relationship for a year and a half with a guy who I have realised has this. He has agreed to go to counselling as he says he doesn’t love me but doesn’t know why. He has more of a connection with me than an ex girlfriend that he was engaged to. He knows there is no reason not to love me but just can’t feel it. Does this sound familiar to anyone? A few years ago he went through something with his child which is an ongoing battle and therefore he has reasons to be depressed. He doesn’t feel he deserves o be happy even though he has done nothing wrong. Do you think the therapy will help? Very difficult for me as I love him and want to stand by him as I know deep down he probably does love me so I don’t want to walk away and he doesn’t want me to either!

  7. Julie says:

    I feel like I am experiencing all of this right now and have been for the last 9 months. When I hug my son, boyfriend or a family member I feel absolutely nothing. They all feel like strangers to me. I cannot feel love anymore even for animals. I try traveling, hiking, gardening, or watching t.v. It all feels like one big void. It’s like I’m dead inside. Every day I wake up and my first thought is, please let me FEEL different today. Please let me feel something different from this emptiness. I sleep more than I should just to escape the nothingness. I’ve put on more weight. Has anyone had any success with medication? It doesn’t seem to help.

  8. Becky Winebarger says:

    Finally!! Finally my son has been diagnosed with Anhedonia. He is 26 years old, has spent most of his teenage years till now with every symptom you have described. He has lived in hell and many times all but given up. As a parent it is so hard to deal with being helpless.

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