Numbness and loss of pleasure are now recognized as core symptoms of depression. A general loss of pleasure in life, or ‘anhedonia’ as psychiatrists call it, can be frightening and disturbing. Victims of this condition often say they would rather feel intensely sad and spend all day in tears than live in what they frequently describe as a ‘zombie-like’ or ‘half-dead’ state.
Anhedonia is especially noticeable in an individual’s sexual or romantic life. Those who suffer with this disorder often find that orgasms are without pleasure, and that even something as simple as hugging or holding hands has become mechanical and routine. There is no longer any spark or thrill. More generally, people with anhedonia find they cannot obtain the pleasure they once did from music, socializing or even eating. A good test is a piece of music or a film that used to move you deeply. If you find that such things no longer have any effect, you may be suffering with anhedonia. It should be added that anhedonia is, in a sense, natural. As we age, our sense of hearing, vision and touch all diminish and so naturally our pleasures are less intense than they were in our early twenties.
The specific causes of anhedonia are unclear, though many believe it has something to do with a disturbance in the functioning of the neurotransmitters, particularly dopamine and norepinephrine. A popular theory is that the emotional numbness associated with anhedonia begins in prolonged stress, which floods the body with stress hormones. As a consequence, dopamine levels are depleted. SSRI medications, which are often blamed for emotional flatness and numbness, also work by increasing the amount of serotonin in the brain at the expense of dopamine, damaging dopamine receptors in the process.
Possible treatments vary. Some people have had great success with prescription medications that increase dopamine, such as Wellbutrin and Requip. These can only be prescribed by a psychiatrist or medical doctor, however. If you would prefer not to take such medications there are natural alternatives. Yoga and meditation, when combined with lots of exercise, have helped some. Others have reported success with herbs and supplements purchased in health food shops. These include Rhodiola Rosea and St John’s Wort. A radical change in diet has also helped many; try giving up junk food and caffeine and reducing the amount of sugar you consume. Raw, organic fruits and vegetables and lots of fresh oily fish can also help. It is important to get lots of positive stimulation in your life, so try reading lighter, more cheerful books, watching lots of comedies, visiting art galleries or museums and above all increasing the number of positive, happy people in your life.
Finally, it may be worth focussing on increasing dopamine and dopamine receptors. Try tyrosine and B6 supplements. Exercise has been shown to increase dopamine receptors and is perhaps the single most effective means of recovery. Excessive pornography and masturbation have also been linked to reduced dopamine, so try cutting down on both. Some have even reduced the amount they eat, consuming only enough to function day to day. Experiments with rats and mice have shown than drastic calorie restriction increases the amount of dopamine receptors. But this should only be taken as a final resort and should be done with caution.