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Insight into Anhedonia Treatment

written by: Scott EIlers • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 3/7/2011

Anhedonia is the inability to experience joy and can indicate the presence of mental illness. Anhedonia is often treated with psychotherapy including cognitive behavioral therapy and interpersonal therapy, antidepressant medications, or alternative treatment options such as yoga and walking.

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    Definition of Anhedonia

    Anhedonia, or "the loss of joy," is defined as a lack of the feelings of enjoyment or accomplishment that typically accompany pleasurable events such as socializing with friends, eating a good meal and sex. An individual who is experiencing anhedonia may no longer feel a desire to go to work, attend classes, manage their health, interact with other people, or engage in hobbies or entertainment. Anhedonia is a common symptom of mood disorders such as major depressive disorder or dysthymic disorder, but it can also be experienced independent from a diagnosed mental health condition.

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    Anhedonia Treatment: Psychotherapy

    Psychotherapy is typically recommended for individuals who are experiencing anhedonia as a component of a mental illness such as major depressive disorder. One of the most common psychotherapy protocols employed in the treatment of anhedonia is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

    This form of anhedonia treatment challenges negative or maladaptive thought patterns to foster and create new, healthier thought patterns. A patient receiving CB treatment might be directed to focus on the positive aspects of his or her life by journaling or by making a list of things that he or she does well. A CBT therapist may engage in role-playing with the client to model healthy, adaptive thought processes and also assign "homework" that is designed to form new thought or behavior patterns, such as engaging in an enjoyable activity for one hour per day.

    Another type of psychotherapy frequently used in the treatment of anhedonia is interpersonal therapy, in which the content of the therapy sessions is focused primarily on the quantity and quality of the patient's relationships with other people and on discussing strategies to improve these relationships. Patients receiving interpersonal therapy as a form of anhedonia treatment may be directed to spend a certain amount of time with friends and family per week, or to enhance their social connections by joining clubs, classes, or sports teams.

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    Anhedonia Treatment: Psychotropic Medication

    Psychotropic medications are frequently employed as a treatment for anhedonia and may be offered as a standalone treatment method or in conjunction with psychotherapy. Because anhedonia is typically a component of depressive disorders, antidepressant medications are prescribed.

    Psychotropic medications are generally the treatment of choice for individuals who are experiencing isolated bouts of anhedonia that are not a component of a depressive disorder. There are several different types of antidepressant medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), and tricyclic antidepressants (TCIs).

    Each type interacts with individual brain chemistry in a different way, and their efficacy is in part based on this interaction. Antidepressant medications are typically prescribed on a trial-and-error basis in order to find the medication that is most beneficial for a given individual.

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    Other Treatment Options

    An additional treatment option that has shown some promise in reducing symptoms of anhedonia is physical exercise. While this may seem counter-intuitive given that anhedonia is marked by feeling unwilling or unable to engage in hobbies, clinical trials have demonstrated a reduction in depressive symptoms including anhedonia following regular physical exercise. For example, Strohle (2008) performed a meta-analysis on the available research of exercise as a treatment for symptoms of depression and found that its efficacy was supported in every trial that included a clinical population.

    The rate of symptom reduction from physical exercise is comparable to symptom reduction rates from psychotherapy and psychotropic medication. And the exercise does not need to be strenuous; low to moderate intensity exercises such as yoga or walking can reduce feelings of anhedonia.