Experts share the best ways to bounce back from this joyless state of mind.

By Seraphina Seow
November 18, 2020
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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.

How to reverse anhedonia, one step at a time

“Some individuals may have a genetic vulnerability to have slightly imbalanced levels of dopamine,” Ho says. “But a lot of the things that help balance dopamine levels are modifiable, such as sleeping sufficiently, exercising or moving more, reducing levels of psychosocial stress, eating consistent healthy meals, and engaging in important social interactions.” These also lessen inflammation in the body and brain, so prioritizing them is key.

Engaging in important social connections simply means making contact with people you feel safe with, even if you don’t feel like socializing, says Nadeau. “Oftentimes people experience anhedonia and other symptoms of depression when they feel these social connections are weak.” 

In 2020, our electronic devices have become our main window to the world and to each other. When our brains become used to reward cues coming mainly from our phones and computers, it can dull our ability to feel enjoyment from non-electronic experiences, Felger says.

Felger suggests slowly reducing your electronic use in the hours leading up to bedtime, so you can reap some of the benefits to support sleep as well

“Do anything you can to convey to yourself that you are worthy of care and worthy of compassion,” says Nadeau. You may not feel like going for a walk or socializing because it’s not going to make you feel better, but to convey to yourself that you’re worthy of care, you would ask yourself: “What would be most helpful for me right now? How can I show myself care and compassion?”

Identify thinking patterns that could be detrimental to your journey to caring for yourself, such as a tendency for all-or-nothing thinking. All-or-nothing thinking looks like believing that in order to socialize, you need to have fun activities planned and conversations that flow easily the entire time, or it is not worth it. Becoming aware of this thinking pattern helps you start brainstorming what alternative thoughts might be more helpful instead and actually increase motivation.

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Nadeau says people experiencing anhedonia often hold beliefs across three categories. 

“You might have negative views of yourself, combined with negative views of the world, which is not surprising at the moment, combined with negative views of the future, like ‘it's not going to get better’ or ‘I'm always going to feel this way.’”

To help restructure your beliefs, Nadeau suggests keeping a thought worksheet. On a sheet of paper, write about a situation that happened, the moods you felt, and the automatic thoughts you had (either of yourself, the world, and/or the future).  

Write down evidence that supports the main, automatic thought driving the moods, and evidence that does not support it. In doing this, you are positioning yourself to review all the information your brain is receiving, Nadeau explains, looking not only at the negative aspects, but the neutral and positive aspects. 

After doing this, reassess your moods without judgement.

Besides evaluating your negative thoughts, take the time to create neutral thoughts to counter them, says Nadeau. For example, a neutral thought could be, “Even though my friend and I aren’t as close as we used to be, she still checks in on me.” 

“It takes into account something negative and positive and draws them together,” Nadeau says, which makes it realistic and easier for you to adopt.

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Listing simple things you're grateful for in a journal brings the forgotten positive aspects of our lives to the front of our mind, says Nadeau. “You may be grateful for having food on your plate, or having a pillow to rest your head on every night, or for the moon and how it shows up every night.” Try to do this every day, even if you only write down one or two things.

“It can be really discouraging to do something you usually love to do and find it isn't something you love to do anymore,” Nadeau says. To combat your now-negative association with something that used to be positive, Levy suggests approaching these activities with a different intent. Instead of seeking enjoyment, focus on leaving the activity with a more neutral perspective, such as, ‘I’ve done something to improve the way I feel.’  

Start with small, manageable bursts of time, spending 15 minutes watching a TV show or walking outside. Levy encourages taking note of what sensations you experience during the activity, like the scratchy blanket across your knees as you watch a sports game, to practice being mindful of the moment

While the above tips can be beneficial jumping off points, if the anhedonia (or depression) has been present for a long time and started to affect your ability to carry out daily activities, Levy recommends seeking out a therapist or psychiatrist to provide additional, professional support, and coping strategies. 

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