Fighting Joylessness… a brief guide.
Fighting Joylessness… a brief guide.
Anhedonia (meaning ‘without pleasure’), is a fairly common symptom of a great many mood disorders, and something almost everyone has experienced at some time or another. It literally means an ‘inability to feel pleasure’… and relates to a state of mind whereby everyday common things which normally make you happy, are suddenly things you are indifferent to.
It is said to occur as our normal chemical reward systems (mostly dopamine-related) start to malfunction. These systems govern our response to activities like eating a nice meal, reading a good book, in fact anything pleasurable really – whether you’re a stamp-collector or an ichthyologist – that happy-feeling you get is your brain releasing neurotransmitters like dopamine.
During a spell of anhedonia – the brain fails to produce the rewarding chemicals. This can have a fairly major impact on a person’s life, it can be very distressing to discover that all of a sudden you’ve lost the ability to enjoy things that you’ve enjoyed for years. Knock-on effects can include poor concentration, poor memory and (quite understandably) anxiety.
Have you ever started to watch your favourite TV programme, only to find yourself staring vacantly ‘through’ the screen, or have you ever started reading a book you’ve been stuck-in for the last few weeks, only to find that your eyes have passed over three or four pages, and you can’t remember a thing you’ve read? Or have you ever had a deep-seated feeling of boredom, but cannot for the life of you lose the feeling, no matter what activity you push yourself into? If so, there’s a good chance you know what I mean.
What’s worse, is that when it sets in without warning and lasts for a period of weeks – it can become self-fulfilling. You don’t enjoy anything, so you don’t try anything. Worse still, it can stop you doing things that you never knew would help elevate your mood.
So what do you do with yourself, when nothing is appealing?
Wiser words were never printed on the back of an interstellar travel guide (in large, friendly letters). It can be disorienting to suddenly wake up and find out you simply ‘can’t be bothered’ with anything in life any more. Worse still, your mind can go to great lengths to turn inwards, even blaming yourself in some silly ways for the way you feel. It is not your fault. However, conversely, from the moment you realise that you’re in this situation I feel you have a duty to yourself to work towards feeling better, take heart that this feeling will pass, but start taking steps to speed your recovery along.
First and foremost – its important to note that anhedonia can be a symptom of a wide variety of underlying psychological and physiological conditions, but it is also a natural process. It is common to feel like you cannot find joy when you’ve lost a loved one, ended a significant relationship, or been involved in a traumatic experience. If these feelings last (or if you experience any self-destructive thoughts), book in to see your GP and ask about the different options available for yourself.
(Note: These things work for me, not all of them, all the time… but I’ve found it useful to build up an arsenal for when these times come around… give them a go if you feel it is appropriate, but understand this is just my personal experience, what works for you may be different)
Knowing that its a malfunction in your rewards-system can give you an edge in the fight against joylessness. Once you’ve accepted that things might not ‘feel’ as good as they should, you can crack on with ‘doing them anyway’. Procrastination is your enemy. It can be very easy to start a task, and give up after five minutes as your mind becomes convinced something ‘else’ might make it happier. One thing I like to do, is take a deep breath, walk to the kitchen, and find the most complex recipe in my cook-book that I’ve got the ingredients for. Keeping myself active and stuck to a task that I can’t just ‘give up on’, focuses my mind and stops it from wandering. Same goes with any ‘mindless’ task, eg. cleaning the house, getting some gardening done, walking to the shop are all nice gentle forms of exercise and as we all know – exercise releases endorphins, which themselves can make us feel a little brighter.
Another trick I’ve learned is to limit my options. I’m a bit of an addict when it comes to the internet, and often during ‘joyless’ phases, I’ll find myself browsing randomly and haphazardly around ebay, amazon and wikipedia for hours on end, essentially just ‘killing time’. This occupies me, but doesn’t come with any logical reward path,so during these phases – I turn my modem off.
Find something ‘novel’
If everything you enjoy seems to have lost its shine, then why not try something you didn’t think you’d enjoy. As a computer-room-dwelling exercise-phobic twenty-something, I was quite surprised how much a walk down the waterfront at sunset can calm me when I’m feeling anxious, and balance me out when I’m feeling joyless.
Another thing that I’ve found is that even at my lowest ebb, I can still find much joy vicariously: let me explain that a little.
I’ve recently started giving my Nan some long-owed ‘computer lessons’. Starting from zero knowledge I’ve taken her through setting up her email accounts, chatting to my ex-pat Auntie using her web cam, finding former classmates from the 1950s using Friends Reunited. During the time I started these, I’ve been going through a fairly nasty depressive-phase where most of my old go-to’s (certain video games, most films, TV, chatting with friends) have been useless in doing their job and making me a happier bunny.
What I found was, that the reward I got from helping somebody else out, seemed to bypass my ‘malfunctioning’ chemical-reward-system, and let me get ‘out of my own head’ where I’d felt firmly stuck for the prior weeks. You might find something like this yourself, the tough part is getting over the first hurdle and just trying.
Put away the credit card
Sometimes, when we’re feeling low (for whatever reason) and can’t cheer ourselves up – we turn to things we’ve done in the past which we remember have cheered us up. A lot of the time, this is a great methodology – but under certain circumstances this can lead to problems. Over-eating, compulsively gambling or drinking, having that cigarette you’ve been craving ever since you quit, spending money on things you don’t need; all of these can be viewed as the brain attempting to ‘short-cut’ to some degree of happiness or satisfaction. I’m not going to lecture anyone on the relative merits and problems of all of these – there’s plenty of articles out there which do a good job of demonizing them, (and either vilifying or patronizing the people they affect), but if they affect you – knowing that your mind will start to crave them when it’s feeling a little low, means you can make a plan of attack – so that you can avoid the pitfalls of them all should you find yourself tempted.
For more information, further reading and stories:
t=anhedonia&stfo=True&sc=bnj.pub.MED&p=1&sf=srt.unspecified&sfld=fld.title&sr=bnj.pub&did=22177980&pc=36&id=3 (NHS Journal article that can be printed off by your support worker)
**NB: ‘The Image of Marvin the Paranoid Android and ‘Don’t Panic’ from the Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy are copyrighted by Touchstone Pictures, and are reproduced here under the terms governing ‘Fair Use’. Credit to DeviantArt user http://everfalling.deviantart.com/ for the image.