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It seems like a person’s mental health is under constant attack these days. We have a media that delivers bad news 24/7, toxic politics, the immeasurable challenges of things like climate change… and that’s before we even get to the day-to-day pressures of modern living.
People aren’t mean to live under that kind of regular stress on such a consistent basis. The result is an increase in depression, anxiety, and anhedonia.
Depression and anxiety are often talked about, but what is anhedonia? It is a condition where the brain’s reward circuits are not communicating effectively with one another.
Typically, the brain uses dopamine to send messages along its reward circuits – do a thing that you enjoy and the brain rewards you with a positive feeling.
A person who is experiencing anhedonia will not feel that reward or brightness. They may do a thing that should bring enjoyment, but that feeling never materializes.
Furthermore, anhedonia amplifies the threat circuits of the brain. That is, the parts of your brain telling you to be afraid or wary of something.
So, in some people, you have reduced happiness and positivity, amplified stress and wariness, and then all of the outward stresses we have to deal with. It’s not a great combination!
That’s why we need to take some proactive steps if you find yourself unable to enjoy anything.
But, before we do that, there is one other thing that you should be aware of. Anhedonia can be temporary and situational. It can also be a symptom of a larger mental health issue, like Major Depression Disorder, PTSD, or Bipolar Disorder.
So if you find yourself struggling with anhedonia, it would be a good idea to talk to a mental health professional about it so you can be accurately assessed. If you are struggling with a mental illness, then you may need professional help to navigate it.
In the meantime, there are some ways that you can try to gain back your enjoyment of things and improve your happiness.
1. Consume less negative media.
By media, we don’t just mean the news. There is so much negativity out there, and our brains just aren’t wired to deal with the constant, ongoing stream of it. It’s a matter of continually beating oneself down with all of the awful things in the world.
Limit how much news you watch. There’s no reason to keep up with the 24/7 news cycle. But also limit what you look at on social media, read about on the internet, and consume.
It’s difficult to be happy and find enjoyment in things when you’re constantly watching sad things or listening to depressing music. Yes, it feels cathartic in that moment, but it’s not going to do you any favors in the long-term.
If you want to stay informed, block out a small period of time in your day to look at the news. After that, avoid it completely.
2. Get active.
Get out and exercise! Exercise provides so many tangible benefits for the human body and brain. Not only do you keep your body in good working order, but it also encourages your brain to produce more feel-good chemicals that can help foster enjoyment and happiness.
It doesn’t have to be a lot. Even walking a few times a week will help provide valuable maintenance to your body and mind.
The human body is not built for a sedentary lifestyle. It needs movement and exercise to stay healthy.
3. Cut back on sugar and caffeine.
Sugar and caffeine are two staples of our culture. Everything seems to be loaded with sugar to enhance flavor. And caffeine is the miracle elixir that gets many of us moving in the morning, or middle of the night, depending on your schedule. Both are not great for your body and mind.
Excessive consumption of sugar causes inflammation in the body. Inflammation in the body has an adverse effect on the way the brain produces chemicals and functions. It creates constant stress that the brain needs to deal with on top of everything else that is going on. In some people, cutting back on sugar and fixing their diet improves their overall mood.
Caffeine is disruptive in the way we sleep and function, particularly if you happen to consume it before bed. Even if you sleep, you may not be falling into a deep enough sleep for your brain to adequately replenish all of the mood-balancing and feel-good chemicals that it will need for the coming day.
Less caffeine and sugar may help life your overall mood and keep it more balanced throughout the day.
4. Keep a gratitude journal.
Gratitude is such a common suggestion for improving happiness and satisfaction in life. It’s so common that people use it as a throwaway suggestion a lot of time. “Have you tried practicing gratitude? Are you grateful? Why aren’t you more grateful for what you have?” And then they do a poor job of ever explaining why it’s a powerful tool. Let’s change that.
The idea behind gratitude is to retrain your brain to look for positive things (the things you have) instead of negative things (the things you don’t have or want.)
Depression and anhedonia try to force your brain into constantly looking at and dwelling on the negative. A lot of times that can be countered by taking some time to reflect on positive things.
This is not to suggest that “positive thinking” will undo mental illness or the more severe causes of anhedonia. No, this is about symptom management and improving the overall quality of your present thoughts, rather than just riding the rollercoaster down into the darkest pits of your brain.
A gratitude journal helps this because it’s something tangible you can hold onto, go back and read to reflect on, and include other positive things in it that might help boost your mind back up.
5. Identify enjoyable experiences even when you didn’t feel enjoyment at the time.
Enjoyment is a funny thing in that, unlike pleasure which tends to happen in the moment, it is often after an event that we realize that we enjoyed something.
And the feeling of enjoyment has a rational, mental element to it along with the emotional element. You think about the enjoyment as well as feel it.
If you can’t seem to enjoy anything right now, you might be focused too much on the feeling and not enough on the thoughts.
So next time you do something that you used to enjoy or that you think you should enjoy, don’t worry about what you’re feeling; just consider whether that activity had some objectively enjoyable elements to it.
Say you did a little gardening, which is something you once found a lot of enjoyment in. Maybe you didn’t get that same feeling this time, but you should hopefully be able to look at it from a rational perspective and see that it was something that wasn’t unenjoyable. It helped pass the time, it was productive, it has made your garden a nicer place to be (or will do once things flower or grow), it might even have been a good workout for your body.
Like the gratitude journal, it might not solve the underlying causes of your anhedonia, but this cognitive enjoyment can help you feel just a little better about your day in the meantime.
6. If you can’t be positive, try not to be negative.
People tend to try to function in black and white, right and wrong, positive and negative. It turns out there is a massive middle ground where it’s much easier to find a little peace of mind and even some enjoyment.
If you can’t be positive, at least try not to be negative. Neutral is okay if that can get you through a difficult moment.
The problem with dwelling on negative thoughts is that it usually encourages them to spiral and worsen. The more you think about it, the worse it gets, the deeper you spiral, and the more you think about it.
It’s almost impossible to enjoy something when you’re drowning in that negative space. And the best way to avoid drowning in that negative space is to try to stay out of those waters as much as you can.
Sit down, consider what kind of negative thoughts you regularly have, and then come up with neutral thoughts to replace them. When those negative thoughts creep in, force them out by repeating the neutral replacements you found for them.
This kind of practice can help improve your mind’s overall environment and facilitate more enjoyment and happiness.
7. Do seek out professional help.
Sometimes anhedonia is temporary; sometimes, it’s not. If you find that your lack of enjoyment is interfering with your ability to conduct your life or has been present for a long time, it would be a good idea to seek professional help. It may be a bigger issue than self-help can address.
And that’s okay. Everyone experiences depression and anhedonia at some point. Life is just difficult and stressful, and sometimes the brain has a hard time dealing with all of it at once. There is no shame in admitting we need a little extra help once in a while.
Connect with a therapist on BetterHelp.com whom you can work with from the comfort of your home via video, phone, or instant messenger. Click here to sign up.
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