Anhedonia – When You Feel Emotionally Numb

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Anhedonia refers to the incapacity of experiencing pleasure or to find motivation. People who confront with it are unable to find interest in activities which were previously regarded as pleasurable. This may be a symptom of major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, substance-related disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder.

The two main types of anhedonia: social anhedonia and physical anhedonia

People who experience social anhedonia withdraw from social activities since they no longer have an interest to interact with other people and social gatherings produce no pleasure. However, high levels of social anhedonia are associated with an acute feeling of loneliness which suggest that, even though the enjoyment gained from social interaction is lowered, it is not entirely absent.

In case of physical anhedonia, people lose their ability to experience any kind of pleasure in case of physical sensations. They find every meal tasteless and are unable to enjoy even their favorite foods, which also leads to an unbalanced diet. When it comes to relationships, they report a lack of interest in physical intimacy. Hugging has no longer an effect in case of them and they also lose interest in sexual activity.

There are several signs one suffers from anhedonia:

  • Emotional blunting – people no longer react in case of events which would normally produce a significant emotional impact. They are able, however, to recognize the instances when such events occur, even though they no longer produce any effect. This sometimes leads to those suffering from anhedonia to project fake emotions.
  • Reduce affect display – those suffering from anhedonia are unable to project any emotion, either verbally of nonverbally; they have little facial expression or vocal inflection
  • Poor social adjustment – people who experience anhedonia are no longer able to meet the demands of the society or engage in satisfying interactions; the quality of previously formed relationships also decreases
  • Depressed mood – people lose interest in their job, they quit paying attention to their health, gain no pleasure from their hobbies and passions and see no point in engaging in activities which would normally leave them energized
  • Difficulty in making decisions – the emotional numbness leaves people unable to see the better alternative when trying to make a decision, since every possibility seems as plain as the others
  • Guilt – people realize they become empty and disconnected but are unable to return to their previous state, thus leading to them feeling like they are disappointing the others and themselves

Possible causes for feeling emotionally numb:

  • Mental illness – anhedonia is a common symptom of depression, with approximately 70% of people with a major depressive disorder experiencing it. It can also occur in case of other mood disorders, like bipolar disorder, or dissociative disorders, since this type of disorders leads to individuals distancing from the real world
  • Difficulty in processing emotions – grieving from an important loss or recovering from any kind of abuse or traumatic event leads to overwhelming negative emotions, like despair, helplessness, loneliness or frustration. In many cases, when people find managing these emotions impossible, they choose to detach from them entirely in order to be able to cope. This may eventually lead to complete emotional numbness.
  • Medication – antidepressants, antipsychotics and other downers or drugs may induce a feeling of apathy and can eventually cause anhedonia
  • Stress – constant high levels of stress may lead to emotional burnout, which leaves the individuals mentally exhausted. When facing prolonged stress, people become emotionally drained, lose their interest and motivation and even maintaining the relationships with the loved ones becomes only a waste of energy.

When encountering anhedonia, one should contact a mental health professional after having established that there are no other medical issues. The treatment may include antidepressants or talk therapy, but there is no fixed method of treating anhedonia. The objective usually is to define and treat the issue which provoked it, aiming to obtain a reduction of all of its effects, including anhedonia.

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