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What Is Anhedonia? - Definition, Treatment, Symptoms & Causes

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Sarah Lavoie

Sarah has taught Psychology at the college level and has a master's degree in Counseling Psychology.

Depression is a difficult condition that many people face at some point in their lives. Explore anhedonia, one of the essential symptoms of depression, and its causes and treatments. Test your understanding with a quiz.

We also recommend watching Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment and Brief Psychotic Disorder: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

Definition

Anhedonia is a symptom of depression, and is defined as the lack of ability to feel and experience pleasure. Before we examine this symptom more fully, let's talk a little about pleasure and enjoyment, and why they are essential in our lives.

Feeling Pleasure

Take a moment to think about all the things you love to do. What would you most like to be doing right now? Maybe playing soccer or video games? And who would you like to be with? A friend, classmate, spouse or pet? Think of all the activities and people that bring you enjoyment, and remember a few of your answers as we continue.

How do you know whether or not you like something? Whether it is a new movie or a new food, there are some distinctive signs of pleasure. We may smile, or laugh. Our taste buds tingle or our ears are filled with an enticing tune. There is a sense of comfort and ease when doing things we enjoy. Even when the activity may be scary or tough (rock-climbing, perhaps), we can still tell a feeling of enjoyment, deep inside ourselves and sometimes all over our bodies.

Sigmund Freud would say that pleasure is a feedback mechanism we have developed to motivate ourselves to recreate the pleasurable experience. This keeps us moving towards pleasure and away from pain. Some Greek philosophers believed that pleasure was the only good. Hedonism comes from the Greek word for pleasure, and means commitment to pleasure seeking as a way of life.

Depression: The Opposite of Pleasure

Everyone has experienced sadness. Sadness comes from the loss of something important, such as a job, friend, child or pet. After experiencing a breakup, it is normal to feel sad, want to sleep all day and have no appetite. We have all been there. But these feelings typically lessen with time, and life returns to normal after a period of grief. Depression is something entirely different.

Depression is one of the most common types of mental disorder. When using the word 'depression' as a medical term as we are here, it represents a Major Depressive Episode. Having a depressive episode can be a sign of a number of possible conditions, such as Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, and Schizophrenia. To be diagnosed with a Major Depressive Episode, five or more of the following symptoms must be present continuously for at least two weeks. Either #1 or #2 must be present as one of these symptoms.

  1. Depressed mood most or all of the day, every day or nearly every day
  2. Loss of interest in all or nearly all activities most every day
  3. Significant weight loss or weight gain
  4. A change in sleeping patterns, normally either insomnia or excessive sleeping
  5. Physical feelings of sluggishness, restlessness, agitation or a feeling of being slowed down
  6. Unusual fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day
  7. Feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt
  8. Inability to concentrate, difficulty thinking and making decisions
  9. Repeated thoughts of death or suicide

As you can imagine, these symptoms cause serious disturbance in day-to-day functioning, and often cause problems in work and home life. When someone is diagnosed as depressed it is every bit as serious as a physical illness.

Anhedonia in Depression

Let's focus on the second symptom above. Loss of interest in all or nearly all activities most every day is one of the symptoms that must be present for a diagnosis of clinical depression. This symptom is known as anhedonia, or the lack of ability to feel and experience pleasure.

Does this sound serious? It certainly is. People suffering from depression seem to lose the ability to feel pleasure, even from those activities that were most pleasurable to them before. Lets think back to the activities you thought of at the beginning of this lesson. Think about each of those enjoyable activities and how they make you feel. Now imagine taking away the feelings of pleasure that accompany your favorite activities.

We all do things that are not necessarily pleasurable, such as work, schoolwork or chores. What if all of your favorite activities suddenly felt like work, not fun? Imagine that playing games and hanging out with friends no longer felt good and even food did not taste appealing. Even sexual experiences lose pleasure. This is the experience of anhedonia.

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