There’s a term for a continual feeling of numbness and joylessness - it’s anhedonia. Author Tanith Carey believes it’s not spoken about as much as it should be and shares how to bring joy back into your life, starting today
Award-winning author and journalist Tanith Carey has always researched and written books about subjects that matter to her personally. Her latest, Feeling 'Blah'?: Why Anhedonia Has Left You Joyless and How to Recapture Life's Highs, came as a result of her own experiences.
“I noticed this feeling in me that didn’t seem to have a name,” she explains. “I went in search of it, to discover what it is, that numbness, that feeling stuck in a rut and emotionally flatlined when you think you should be happy because you’re ticking all the boxes but you just never get those feelings of joy or euphoria. I was amazed that there’s an incredible body of research on this, it has a name and it’s anhedonia.”
Tanith set about gathering information around anhedonia, confused as to why the subject isn’t more broadly discussed. “I’m wondering why we spend so much time talking about happiness at one end of the spectrum and depression at the other but we don’t talk about the middle ground in mental health? The grey space where so many of us live our lives. We don’t talk about ways of flourishing, instead of languishing, which many of us are.”
What is anhedonia?
“One thing I should say is that anhedonia is known to be a symptom of major depression,” Tanith clarifies. “But you don’t have to be depressed to have anhedonia. It can be a ‘stand alone’ feeling. You can be getting up, going to work and doing all the things that you are supposed to be doing but not feel any joy at the core of it.”
When everything feels good, it gets to a point where nothing feels good
It all begins with how the brain is functioning, she explains. “In many cases, anhedonia happens when your brain’s main reward system, the limbic pathway, isn’t running as smoothly as it should. Put basically this pathway is powered by dopamine (a type of neurotransmitter that plays a role in how we feel pleasure) and there are lots of things that can interrupt it. This could be an illness where your immune system has overreacted and this inflammation can reach regions of your brain - so your dopamine isn’t circulating as well as it should be.
“It’s also caused by burnout,” Tanith continues. “When we are so stressed that our bodies are constantly flooded by cortisol (a steroid hormone that plays an important role in how we respond to stress) the cortisol actually suppresses the action of dopamine.
However, Tanith is keen to also look at the bigger picture within Feeling Blah, starting with how we live in first world countries.
“We live in a world where our needs are met immediately,” she states. “Everything is convenient. We can have most things on our doorsteps in minutes. We can have food delivered, shop online, get anything we want to watch or hear immediately and our reward circuits are becoming overloaded.”
The ease of convenience, Tanith notes, is working against our physiology. “We get so many dopamine hits that this affects the ability of the brain to circulate this and so it down-regulates the dopamine receptors. Basically, when everything feels good, it gets to a point where nothing feels good. So we reach a state of numbness.”
Finding joy again…
There is hope, however, for finding joy after anhedonia and Tanith explores many of the ways to start this process in her book.
“The great news is that thanks to advances in neuroscience and MRI scanners, we know more about how joy is made in the brain than we have ever known. This means we have the knowledge to go to the next level, meet the needs that we have in a modern society and we can move forward and evolve.”
Joy is divided into three parts. It’s the anticipation of the experience, the experience itself and remembering it positively afterwards
This begins with understanding what joy is and how it impacts us all. “I think this was the most fascinating part of the research for me,” Tanith says smiling. “Joy is divided into three parts. It’s the anticipation of the experience, the experience itself and remembering it positively afterwards.”
However, she notes, for those who are entrenched in anhedonia, this might not be as simple as it sounds. “The stealth thing about anhedonia is it stops you wanting to do the things that would make you feel good in the first place,” Tanith says.
This is where behavioural activation therapy has been proven to help. “Research quite clearly shows that behavioural activation therapy is the best therapy we have to get anhedonia and the reward system back on track,” she notes. “The best way to explain it is like one of those old-fashioned water pumps, where you keep pressing the lever and waiting for the water to come up and it doesn’t for a while, but when it does it flows freely.”
“I talk a lot in the book about the concept of ‘spark’, Tanith continues. “A spark is the one thing that we would all do given the freedom to do it if no one else got involved. We all have that. It could be activism, gardening, listening to music. It’s often something from childhood that you are innately drawn to. If you could connect to that and actually give yourself an opportunity to indulge and nurture that spark, just a little bit every day, then the good feelings will start flowing again.”
Find out more
Listen to Tanith Carey on I am. I have
Feeling 'Blah'?: Why Anhedonia Has Left You Joyless and How to Recapture Life's Highs is available to order now.
Follow @no_more_blah_book on Instagram.