Feel Like You Don't Enjoy Anything Anymore? There's a Name for That—and You Can Break Through It
Not being able to do things we enjoyed, like attending celebratory events or inviting friends over on the weekends, has been tricky to accept and navigate in 2020. We’ve all had to adapt and find enjoyment in what we do still have access to. Maybe you’re someone who even felt ready to tackle this head on. After all, you were already pretty content being at home before the pandemic, as long as you got some delicious takeout, could call your friends, and had a good book or TV series to devour. But what if eating tasty food or chatting with your best friend doesn’t bring the same—or any—happiness anymore? What if you feel dull when doing activities you used to enjoy?
This loss or decrease in ability to feel pleasure from things we once enjoyed has a name: anhedonia. While anhedonia appears to mimic boredom, it’s distinct in that it’s usually coupled with a loss of motivation to even give things a try. A person with anhedonia feels like there’s no point trying anything, since nothing feels good anymore.
Anhedonia is a common symptom of mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Since the onset of the pandemic, there has been a rise in these disorders, so it’s not unlikely that anhedonia is affecting more people—and to a higher degree—in 2020.
But someone who hasn’t previously been diagnosed with clinical depression can still experience situational depression or situational anhedonia, says Sigal Levy, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Miranda Nadeau, PhD, a licensed psychologist in Austin, Texas, agrees. “It's something a lot of people experience, at least at one point in their lives,” she says.
Here’s everything to know about anhedonia, the mental health phenomenon that might be holding you back.
What’s going on in your brain when you have anhedonia?
When we look at the brain, there are regions that interact to form a reward circuit. A reward circuit tells you what is rewarding, interesting, or worthy to pursue.
“If you're having someone do a task where they have the opportunity to win money, for example, you'll see these brain regions involved in the reward circuit having functional connections with each other,” says Jennifer Felger, PhD, an associate professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine.
The brain regions use a chemical called dopamine to communicate with each other. Dopamine is used to decide what’s rewarding and how you want to attain it. It’s also used to decide whether something is threatening. Felger explains that these reward circuit regions may not interact as well with each other in people with anhedonia. And therefore, this weakened communication between regions suggests unbalanced levels of dopamine, says Tiffany Ho, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist and assistant professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at UC San Francisco.
Ho also nods to the possible role that prolonged brain and body inflammation—which is often observed in someone with depression and anhedonia after experiencing stressful events—can play in setting the stage for less interactive reward circuit regions.
Adding to this is the amplification of the brain’s threat circuit, which scans for things to avoid. “Now that we have so many fearful and emotional things going on in the world, the brain is responding more and more to threats and less and less to things that are rewarding, just based on what we're exposed to,” Felger says. The reward circuit and threat circuit are constantly running in our brain, she adds, but when one is used more and takes up more brain energy, the other ends up running less efficiently.