Friday, 8 May 2020

Anhedonia

Anhedonia is the technical term for a loss of pleasure in life or, to be more precise, a loss of pleasure in previously enjoyable activities. It's one of the classic symptoms of clinical depression. In reality, anhedonia sucks the joy out of your life. In many ways it's similar to a Dementor's kiss in Harry Potter. Anhedonia may be related to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia aka the 'pleasure centre' - but it might also have something to do with the amygdala, the striatum, the insula or the prefrontal cortex.



People who develop clinical depression can suddenly find that all their hobbies and pastimes provide them with little or no pleasure. Hamlet may have been experiencing anhedonia when he said:

'I have of late - but wherefore I know not - lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goody frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air - look you, this brave o'erhanging firmanent, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire - why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.'

Anhedonia can be devastating. When I became ill, I lost interest in the following activities at a stroke :

  • mountain biking
  • walking
  • church crawling 
  • being on the beach
  • reading
  • writing 
  • poetry
  • photography
  • films
  • comedy (stand ups/sitcoms)
  • music
  • social life
  • nature
It was as as though my soul had literally been sucked out. (To be fair, some of these activities were also impacted by my chronic dizziness and my brain fog.) Getting them back has been a painfully slow process and they have only partially returned. These days I do take photographs on my phone and post them on Flickr or Twitter. I sometimes enjoy listening to music on my ipod in the car and I can concentrate a bit better on films. I laugh at Have I got News For You and I can read self-help books about depression. But I no longer read for pleasure; my writing has been severely restricted (with the possible exception of this blog); my social life has stalled; all physical activity feels leaden and unrewarding and my enjoyment of nature has not returned. Even food and drink has lost some of it's flavour.

However, anhedonia can go away. It is tied in very tightly with depression and if you can shift one then you can potentially shift the other. One of the best approaches is to try to rediscover a child-like innocence and interest in the world. Try to learn new things or new ways of doing things. Do your best to keep you brain active. Neuroplasticity may be our best hope.