Why anhedonia could be the reason you’re feeling flat

If you have zero interest in the things you used to love, you may be experiencing what is known as anhedonia. Here’s why it develops, and what you can do about it.

When it comes to “doing life”, motivation and interest levels can naturally wax and wane.

But if you hit a point where you’re unable to feel any joy at all, you may be experiencing something called anhedonia.

So, what is anhedonia?

A Greek term that literally translates into “without pleasure”, anhedonia is a common symptom of depression and other mental health disorders.

It can also develop as a result of living with a serious or chronic illness, including long COVID.

Along with an inability to feel pleasure, other signs of anhedonia include social withdrawal and a loss of libido.

What’s the brain got to do with it?

Previous studies have shown reduced activity in the reward centre of the brain in people with anhedonia.

But more research is needed – and Black Dog Institute research fellow and psychologist Dr Alexis Whitton, is doing just that.

“To develop more effective treatments, we need to understand what facets of reward processing go awry in anhedonia, and look at which ones we can target with treatment to promote improved treatment outcomes,” Dr Whitton says.

At the moment, common antidepressants don’t tend to work as well for people who have depression with anhedonia, compared to people who have anhedonia-free depression.

“This research program will be the first to determine whether reward processing disturbances predict the onset and course of anhedonia,” Dr Whitton says.

“It will also be the first to evaluate whether a novel behavioural therapy designed to improve reward processing can improve … outcomes for anhedonic depression.”

What to do if you think you have anhedonia

Given its relationship with other mental health conditions, the first step should be to see your doctor to discuss any health issue that may be causing you to experience anhedonia.

Other strategies that may help include the following:

Exercise regularly

The results of a 2022 study show that doing 30 minutes of exercise reduces symptoms of anhedonia for at least 75 minutes post-workout.

More importantly, according to a new Australian study, physical activity is 1.5 times more effective for managing depression than either counselling or the leading medications.

Top up low vitamin D levels

Nearly one in four Australian adults are deficient in vitamin D, a deficiency that has been linked to an increased risk of depression.

A University of South Australia study also suggests low levels could cause chronic inflammation, which other research shows contributes to anhedonia in women.

In chronic inflammation, levels of an inflammatory marker called C-reactive protein remain high for months or even years.

“This study examined vitamin D and C-reactive proteins, and found a one-way relationship between low levels of vitamin D and high levels of C-reactive protein,” Dr Ang Zhou, who led the University of South Australia study, says.

“Boosting vitamin D in people with deficiencies may reduce chronic inflammation, helping them avoid a number of related diseases.”

Make sleep a priority

According to a 2020 study, there may be a connection between lack of sleep and anhedonia in teens.

To encourage a good night’s sleep on a regular basis, get up at the same time every day – even on weekends, and regardless of what time you went to sleep.

It turns out it’s your wake-up time, not your bedtime, that regulates your body clock.

Need mental health support? You can talk to a trained mental health professional 24/7 by contacting Beyond Blue online or calling 1300 224 636.  

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Written by Karen Fittall.