Anhedonia – A Loss Of Pleasure


Depression (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the things people find hard to understand with major depression is how debilitating anhedonia can become.

I’ve previously mentioned anhedonia here on this blog but just to remind you anhedonia is defined as the inability to experience pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable, e.g. exercise, hobbies, music, sexual activities or social interactions. It is a symptom of major depression, indeed one of the defining symptoms.

Think about the things you do to relieve stress. Do you have some sort of hobby or pastime? For me, my hobbies were papercraft and Lego. I also enjoyed spending time watching good movies and high quality TV such as David Attenborough documentaries or “The West Wing”. I enjoyed riding my motor scooter and bicycle.

Most people when they are “depressed”, sad or stressed have something they can turn to. When those things, our hobbies, no longer give pleasure then it becomes harder to cope with the stresses of life. I’m still capable of those things, and sometimes still do them, but they no longer bring me joy or pleasure. They are at best time fillers and at worst another failure, a task I can’t complete.

Boredom also becomes a problem. If you no longer gain any pleasure from your pastimes then it is difficult to get through a long night. You can’t settle down and do anything and I often find myself starting to watch a half dozen movies without being able to settle down and watch one.

All of this adds up to a life that is at best grey. I end up defining a good day as “not unhappy” and a good experience as “not boring” rather than “happy” and “exciting” as those possibilities have left me.

Given that I also have extremely low levels of desire and motivation for my old hobbies it’s interesting to postulate that anhedonia falls into two types, a lack of desire or “motivational anhedonia” as distinct from a low level of enjoyment in activities or “consummatory anhedonia”.

How low is that desire? Incredibly low. For example, at the moment I have three really cool Lego models just waiting to be built and two years ago they would have been built, torn apart and put back together in different forms by now. They are totally untouched. I have two Technic model sports cars (a Ferrari and a Lamborghini) that are almost complete but have remained unfinished for months. I can just about get myself to build a model that takes less than an hour, but even then I can’t find the energy to shoot a couple of photos and write it up for this blog. I have some papercraft models that are also just sitting there waiting to be built, including some neat motorised cardboard animals.

The difficulty with attempting this split into two types of anhedonia is that people are generally less interested in things that do not give them pleasure so you would expect me to have less motivation to engage in my hobbies when they are no longer fun.

At the same time I look at my motivation and desire to do anything. I find that all my motivation is much lower. While nobody likes doing the washing up, for example, usually you do have a feeling of wanting to get it done. “It has to be done, may as well do it” or a feeling to that effect. I seem to be missing that.

So I think that there are different things happening here. Two slightly different forms of anhedonia.

Now I find myself yearning for moments of joy. Over the past year I’ve tried almost everything I can think of to gain some real pleasure from something. It’s now reached a stage where even something that gives an echo of pleasure is something I try for. For example, I often read a familiar book as I can get a memory of the pleasure of reading it, the same with movies that I have enjoyed in the past.

Strangely I find that I can still enjoy the theatre. I think the theatre becomes a world entirely divorced from this one, an alternative reality, and in that reality I can enjoy myself. There have been moments watching theatre where I can find real pleasure.

Major depression hurts in many, many ways but anhedonia is one of the worst. It strips away so much of what makes life tolerable and pleasant.

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