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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.

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.

Anhedonia can effect every aspect of a depressed person's life. Many psychologists believe that we are motivated by the search for pleasure and avoidance of pain. But what if nothing at all felt good? It is certainly not a stretch to think that a person that could not feel pleasure would be unmotivated. The loss of motivation could express itself as a lack of energy. The more and more time spent without feeling pleasure in life can certainly make it difficult to feel anything but depressed.

Causes and Treatment of Anhedonia

Certainly anhedonia is a very serious symptom of depression and other mental disorders. Unfortunately, scientists have not been able to pinpoint a physical cause of anhedonia. Although depression and other mental disorders can certainly cause anhedonia, the true changes in the brain are still being researched and documented.

As with any mental disorder, brain chemistry is the focus of most study. Many studies have been done on the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine has many functions in the brain, and it is understood that dopamine contributes to feelings of pleasure and reward. However, it is not as simple as giving someone a pill to enhance dopamine. The brain is an incredibly complex organ, and neurotransmitters are understood to work with and against each other in ways we do not yet fully understand.

The best treatment for anhedonia is a standard treatment for the diagnosed mental disorder. In major depressive disorder that probably means being treated with antidepressants and talk therapy. Some additions to the standard treatment could include dietary changes for better nutrition and relaxation techniques such as meditation or yoga. Antidepressants are a classification of drugs that are used to treat depressive disorders by increasing the availability of neurotransmitters in the brain. Many antidepressant drugs were originally developed to treat other diseases. These drugs give us clues as to the causes of depression and, more specifically, anhedonia.

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