Feeling flat and a bit ‘blah’? You may have ‘anhedonia’ – here’s how to overcome it

'Mums are at particular risk of anhedonia, but it remains a guilty secret because we dare not say how joyless we feel'

by Tanith Carey |
Published on

Alone at my desk in a dark office, I winced when I saw the time in the corner of my computer screen.

3am. In seven hours, I was due at hospital for a caesarian to give birth to my second daughter, Clio.

Although I'd been advised by my doctor to have a C-section, I had some choice over the date. So of course, I chose the one that would give me the longest time possible in the office, where I worked as an executive on a magazine relaunch.

And now here I was rushing to finish an epic 40-page handover memo for my maternity cover which I prayed would buy me more time with my new-born baby. Some chance.

A week later, my boss rang to ask if I could start working again from home because my cover had decided they didn’t want the job after all. Every part of me wanted to yell: ‘No!’  But to my eternal regret, I heard myself saying: ‘OK.’

Of course, with the rising cost of living and childcare, my partner Anthony and I could have done with the extra money. But the underlying fact was, that like so many of my generation, I had been conditioned to believe that if you were a woman who wanted to do well, you had to pay a high price.

The first clue that I was taking on too much was that I was wholeheartedly relieved when the relaunch was abandoned a year later, and I was made redundant. To spend more time with my children, I decided not to go back to the office and work from home as a journalist. But working from home brought its own issues. While my husband worked 14-hour days in the office, I struggled to meet demands from my children - AND editors.

Even now, more than a decade on, I can still remember the visceral feelings of panic in me at the words: 'Mummy can you play with me"?'  as I battled to keep up with deadlines.

Gradually, being a mother had morphed into an unwinnable race against a stopwatch: always in a panic, always late, and always keeping an eye on my work emails – even during what should have been the most precious moments with my girls.

But as a woman, who’d been to a good university and was expected to ‘do well’, I had sleepwalked into a life which now had me backed against the wall. By the time I realised what was happening, my husband and I were already locked into schools and mortgages. We’d worked hard to make a decent home in which to bring up our daughters - and now found we needed two full-time incomes to keep it.

The irony is that I was so stressed I was the last person to see what was happening to me. Looking back now, there were lots of clues that I was heading into anhedonia – the ‘proper’ word in psychology for the loss of enjoyment in life.

One was that, at the end of another day juggling childcare and work queries, I’d lie on my bed fully clothed, unable to speak or do anything but watch mindless TV that wouldn’t tax my brain. There were other signs. Before I’d always loved music. But now when I played my favourite songs, the chills no longer came.

Instead of being present in my life, I was also gradually becoming dissociated from it. I felt like I was looking in on my life through a pane of frosted glass. Holidays and even hugs no longer felt good.

As I emotionally flatlinined, I stopped being able to laugh. I also stopped being able to cry, the most primal form of communication we have to ask other humans for help. So I just kept my head down, went through the motions of my life and just ‘got on with it.’ But then our brains have finite resources. One of the coping mechanisms it adopts to save energy is going numb.

Through all this I had no name for this non-state of being. In fact I never even heard of “anhedonia”, until I started writing my recent book “Feeling Blah?’  about why so many of us, including me, were losing our love of life in the modern world.

As soon as I saw the term, which is well-known to medical professionals, but which not had not yet entered the mainstream, it was a lightbulb moment. Realising this was where so many of us were heading, and especially working mothers like me, over the next 18 months, I interviewed countless brain researchers  and neuroscientists about how anhedonia creeps up on us, without  us realising what's happening. We just accept it as our status quo.

What’s really happening is that, over time,  the stress hormone cortisol derails the running of our brain’s reward circuit, the mesolimbic reward pathway, where good feelings are made, so nothing feels good.

When the levels of our stress hormones never get a chance to reset, it also dampens down feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin.

Women are particularly at risk of anhedonia as we enter perimenopause and menopause. This is because the drop in oestrogen has a knock-on effect on the production of dopamine, making it even harder to feel good. Oestrogen also buffers cortisol. So, when it starts to drop, we feel even more stressed than we did before.

Yet as anhedonia spreads among working mums, it remains our guilty secret. It stays that way because we dare not say how joyless we feel. We put a gag on ourselves by reminding ourselves how lucky we are to have kids in the first place and telling ourselves off for being so ungrateful. So, amid this conspiracy of silence, we keep trying to do it all on our own.

My two girls are older now – Lily is 21 and Clio is 18 – and it was only when parenting became less time-consuming, that I was finally able to step back and see how joyless my life had become. And take steps to do something about it, like returning to activities, like gigs,, which I had previous loved before I had kids, which I’d been forced by work to abandon.

So, knowing what I know now about the anhedonia, what would I say to that heavily pregnant mother-to be sitting alone in that dark office 18 years ago? First, I’d tell her to tell her boss that no, she doesn’t want to sacrifice those precious first months with her new baby for conference calls about work issues she no longer remembers or cares about.

I’d tell her not to try and do everything, to dial down on work as far as financially possible and to admit that she needed help, whether from friends, family or neighbours and parents.

Isn’t it finally time to accept that parenting can’t be the sole job of two (or fewer) strung-out adults on a hamster wheel chasing the cash to pay for child-care costs?

Most of all, I'd give her the permission I needed to not only enjoy her children, but also her life.

Tanith Carey, is author of Feeling 'Blah'? Why Anhedonia Has Left You Joyless and How to Recapture Life's Highs, published by Welbeck, £16.99

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us