Depression comes with a whole set of unpleasant symptoms, to put it mildly. Feeling worthless or guilty, problems sleeping, problems eating, the inability to think or concentrate: all of these are examples of the problems we have to deal with when it comes to depressive episodes both with major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder. Another key symptom of depression is loss of interest. In fact, you can’t really get a depression diagnosis without it.
Loss of interest is a symptom that can affect your life a lot more than you realize. The drug commercials make it out like all depression does is make you want to sit on the couch and stare out the window a lot. Granted, it’s hard to express how depression makes you feel in a 30-second commercial that is mostly listing potential side effects. But, loss of interest is more than not wanting to go to that party that you probably wouldn’t want to go to if you felt normal. It’s about becoming disinterested in all things life has to offer.
I learned the word for this recently: anhedonia. It makes perfect sense. Hedonism in its most basic definition is pleasure-seeking, wanting things that will make us happy. Hedonism is a Greek word, so when you stick “an” on as a prefix, it negates the whole thing.
In the case of anhedonia, there’s not a lot of choice in the matter.
The motivation just isn’t there. You’re no longer pursuing or recognizing pleasure. You haven’t just phased out of a hobby, you may think you don’t deserve to participate in something that makes you happy, or you’ve lost the ability to even want a hobby altogether.
That’s a key point, there. Mental health advocates, myself included, shout from the rooftops that mental illness is in no way a choice, that it’s more complicated than just telling ourselves to “feel better.” The same goes with losing interest. It’s not something you can just snap out of. It doesn’t mean that you picked the wrong thing to be interested in and should just move on from playing video games to knitting. It means that sometimes your brain cannot connect the circuitry well enough to realize that there is interest to be had.
Feeling an emotion requires the brain to recognize that the situation warrants emotion in the first place.
For people in a depressed state, it actually takes more stimulation than normal for the brain to produce a positive response. The thought behind what causes this is basically that the pleasure signals get lost along the way. Your brain initially recognizes that there something rewarding going on and it sends the signal to the brain’s pleasure center.
There’s a feedback loop that occurs between the prefrontal cortex of the brain (the higher-thinking/decision making part) and the nucleus accumbens (a deeper, more “primitive” part). This is where your brain is supposed to keep communicating with you that good things are happening. The problem is, in depression, the signal gets diminished before it gets to the nucleus accumbens, so the feedback loop doesn’t even start.
This is not to say that we cannot experience pleasure at all when we’re depressed.
It just takes a little more energy to find it, and energy is not something you exactly have in spades with depression.
I keep using hobbies as an example of loss of interest, but it’s important to remember that extracurriculars aren’t all that’s affected by anhedonia. You lose interest in work. You lose interest in sex. You lose interest in relationships. All of these things are hit.
The thing is, you deserve to be happy. You deserve the ability to find pleasure whether it’s walking through the park or enjoying sex with your partner. You don’t need to add this to the list of things to feel guilty about. This is why we need help. Whether it’s from pharmaceuticals or from the very relationships we’re struggling with or both. Remembering it’s okay to be happy is a great start to healing.
You can find me on Twitter @LaRaeRLaBouff
Photo credit: Sam D