Understanding Anhedonia: Depression in Early Recovery
Unlike physical withdrawal, anhedonia doesn't make addicts break out in a sweat. Instead, the condition makes addicts feel flat and unable to find joy in life.
Addiction is a chronic disease that, like asthma or diabetes, can be treated and managed. One unique quality of addiction, however, is its ability to rewire and change a person’s brain chemistry. Studies have shown that certain drugs can cause a decrease in dopamine, a naturally occurring neurotransmitter that regulates reward-motivated behaviors.
Those same drugs can also decrease the number of dopamine receptors available in the brain, affecting an addict’s ability to feel natural pleasure. With seriously depleted dopamine levels and a limited supply of dopamine receptors, it comes as no surprise to learn that people in early recovery frequently struggle with anhedonia, or an inability to feel joy.
Withdrawals and Depression
Unlike physical withdrawal symptoms, anhedonia doesn’t make addicts throw up, feel achy all over, or break out in a sweat. Instead, the condition makes addicts feel flat and unable to find any joy in life. The unchanging and perpetual feelings of depression can make them feel emotionally empty and somewhat lost in the world. Things that would normally make most people smile don’t have the same effect on people who are struggling with anhedonia – especially during early recovery.
During acute and chronic withdrawal, anhedonia is frequently seen in alcoholics and opiate addicts. Research has also shown that the condition equally affects cocaine, stimulant, and cannabis abusers. What’s more, scientists have discovered a significant link between anhedonia, drug cravings, the intensity of withdrawal symptoms, and personality characteristics.
One of the biggest dangers anhedonia presents is its ability to drive a newly sober addict to relapse. In such a state of depression, many people are simply too depressed to push through the recovery process. They feel as if turning to drugs will bring back the long-gone feelings of happiness or restore a sense of normalcy to life. Treating this unique form of depression is critical in order to achieve lasting sobriety.
Healing takes time and resolve. And no two people heal at the same rate; some require much longer treatment periods before achieving success. The good news is that the brain does heal and damaged dopamine receptors can regenerate within 6 to 12 months. Dopamine levels slowly begin to rise, making recovery a much easier and fulfilling process.
With anhedonia, there are several different treatment options. For some, that treatment process might include a combination of medication and holistic therapies. Some of the commonly used methods are:
- Behavioral Activation
- Milieu Therapy (Using therapeutic communities or groups)
- Increased Physical Activity
- Nature Therapy
- Regular and Restorative Sleep
- Increased Socialization
- Goal Setting
- Dietary Improvements (Eliminating processed and sugary foods)
New Outlook, New Life
Unfortunately, anhedonia is a fairly common issue during the withdrawal process. Though it’s most often seen during early recovery, it can persist for longer periods of time. Having a simple understanding of the condition can be a great help. It’s comforting to know that the feelings of emptiness won’t last forever and, once the fog of addiction lifts, a fulfilling and drug-free life is within reach.
Learn more about treatment options for drug and alcohol withdrawal.
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