Anhedonia & Apathy: The Things Depression Takes Away

A heart of ice; apathy and depression - graphic of a heart encased in ice

Many people have some idea of the “gifts” that depression gives, like low mood, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. There’s often less familiarity with what depression steals away from those who suffer from it. One of those things that it takes away is the ability to feel pleasure; this is known as anhedonia. It can also take away the ability to care about things that aren’t directly relevant to you, leading to a sense of apathy about the world at large.

Apathy and (non)-response to tragedy

For me, the sense of apathy really jumps in my face when there are terrible events in the news. I know cognitively that they’re awful, but on an emotional level, I just feel nothing. I’m not a cruel, heartless sort of person, but I still feel nothing. That apathy is not me, though; it’s a part of my mental illness.

This isn’t new. Depression does this. It causes apathy that hardens my heart to anyone’s pain but my own. I recognize that this isn’t who I am, but right now, it’s how I experience the world.

Part of what makes us human is the ability to feel things in response to what is happening around us, both good and bad. If depression takes that away, what does that do to our humanity?

I feel like a monster sometimes for not caring about the tragic devastation and loss of life that comes up so often in the news. It’s as though the ability to feel in that way has been turned off in my brain and my heart, and for the life of me I can’t figure out how to turn it back on. The rest of society might be mourning, and my response is more along the lines of “meh.” While I say I feel like a monster, it’s not in the sense of feeling guilty, because it’s not in my control. At the same time, I’m the only one who’s accountable for my emotions. There’s no one outside of myself that I can blame, but I don’t like the heartlessness that depression brings about in me.

No tears for others

Recently, there was an accident in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan involving a bus carrying members of a junior hockey team, the Humboldt Broncos, and their coaches. Fifteen people died, with the majority of them between the ages of 18-20. This tragedy has dominated the news since then. However, with my depressive apathy, I just can’t seem to make myself care.

When I see it on the news, I think move on, you’ve talked about this enough already. This evening, the news anchor’s voice broke as she read out the names of the deceased, and she was clearly fighting back tears. Her job is to be cool as a cucumber and she struggles to maintain her composure, while I feel like an ice queen.

Why I remember Sandy Hook

Some moments we remember not so much because of the event itself but because of our own circumstances. For me, the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting was one of those moments in time. Don’t get me wrong, it was a terrible event, but sadly these types of events occur with disturbing regularity. I remember Sandy Hook, though, because the memory is inextricably linked to where I was at the time.

I was in the small psychiatric emergency ward in a suburban hospital near the city where I lived. It was a single large room with curtained-off beds and a small seating area with a tv. There was nothing else to do, so I watched tv and picked at the rat’s nest that my hair had become during the delirious days prior to my admission. The tv was tuned to a 24-hour news channel.  

As I watched the story unfold, I felt a curious sense of indifference. The only thing that really struck me was the wish that Adam Lanza had shot me rather than those kids. Why did they get to escape this world while I was stuck rotting on the psych ward? Aside from that thought, I just kept mindlessly picking away at my hair.


Anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure, may not sound like that big a deal, and in the short term, it’s easier to tolerate than really depressed mood. When it drags on, though, it sucks all the light out of the world, and it can be truly soul-destroying.

It means that nothing that I do is enjoyable. I have no interest in any of the things that I used to do, because everything is a matter of just going through the motions. It’s not so much that motivation is the problem; it’s that there’s nothing to get motivated for. There is no light in my world, and there’s nothing to look forward to. It makes life feel very, very heavy.

Aside from my emotional support guinea pigs, nothing that I used to like does anything for me anymore. Travelling used to be my great passion, but now I just don’t care. The last trip I did was to Italy, an amazing part of the world, hoping that travelling might boost my mental health and put a dent in the anhedonia. It didn’t.

I like blogging, but it’s more a matter of mental stimulation and social contact than any actual feeling of pleasure. I know I sometimes comment on other blogs that I enjoyed a post or something along those lines. However, it’s on a cognitive level, not emotional.

How do you work on what isn’t there?

One of the things that’s frustrating with anhedonia and apathy is that there isn’t really a target to work on. With negative thoughts and emotions, you can do therapy and work through them. When the issue is a lack of capacity, though, what are you supposed to do about it? It’s not as though I choose not to feel anything positive, and adding positive external stimuli doesn’t do anything to address the capacity issue.

Depression can leave a darkness and emptiness on the inside that can’t be lit up no matter how brightly the sun shines outside. Perhaps that is harder to understand than that which depression giveth, but the greatest impact on my life has, without question, come from that which depression taketh away.

Carrying on

Mental illness changes how we interact with the world around us, and that can be distressing and even frightening. It can be hard to separate how much of our reactions are truly our own and how much are the illness.

 It’s not something I try to beat myself up over, but I do find it curious. As in so many other situations, I’m not really sure where I end and the illness begins. On this journey of self-discovery, I don’t think I’ll ever find concrete answers, and maybe there will always just be more questions (and perhaps more anhedonia and apathy). Still, it’s important to keep asking those questions – and maybe that’s what I really need to take away from all of this.

Maybe global warming will melt my heart of ice. Or maybe the solid black of my apathy will sink the Titanic all over again, and that will be fine, because a life of anhedonia really isn’t much of a life anyway.  But now I’m just rambling.

book cover: Managing the Depression Puzzle, 2nd Edition, by Ashley L. Peterson

Managing the Depression Puzzle takes a holistic look at the different potential pieces that might fit into your unique depression puzzle.

It’s available on Amazon and Google Play.

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