Mental health

Depression & Emotions: Positive & Negative Affect

Depression and emotions: decreased positive affect and increased negative affect

Last week I was reading a post on Revenge of Eve about her weekly happy list challenge.  The challenge for the week was to identify routines that bring you joy.  I adore Candace and normally participate in her challenges and such things, but this one just wasn’t doing it for me, and that got me thinking.

When was the last time I felt joy or happiness?  Honestly, it’s been around 3 years – before this current episode (although who can really call it an episode anymore) of depression got started.

In his book Stahl’s Essential Psychopharmacology, psychopharm guru Dr. Stephen Stahl divides mood-related depressive symptoms into two broad categories, decreased positive affect and increased negative affect.  

Decreased positive affect

Decreased positive affect involves impaired ability to experience positive emotions, including:

  • anhedonia (inability to experience pleasure)
  • loss of interest
  • amotivation
  • loss of self-confidence

These symptoms represent a lack of positive things that would normally be present. Dopamine and norepinephrine appear to be the main neurotransmitters involved in these symptoms

Increased negative affect

Increased negative affect involves the presence of negative emotions, including:

  • guilt
  • anxiety
  • irritability
  • loneliness 

Symptoms of decreased negative affect are difficult emotions that are experienced to a greater extent than they would be at baseline. Serotonin and norepinephrine appear to play a key role in this symptoms.

Experiencing decreased positive affect

While I certainly have increased negative affect thrown into the mix some of the time, overall my mood symptoms have been much more in the decreased positive affect category.  Other than thinking the guinea pigs are cute, I just don’t seem to have the capacity to feel much of anything positive.  When I’m being mindful of things in nature I’m able to feel interest and curiosity, but that’s about it.  Perhaps in a way it’s a good thing that there’s not a ton of negative stuff kicking around in my head most of the time, and probably on a day to day basis decreased positive affect is easier to cope with than increased negative affect.

When it comes to treatment, though, I wonder if with decreased positive affect there’s less to sink your teeth into in terms of creating change.  It makes me wonder if perhaps that’s why counselling has never really gotten off the ground for me.  

What can you do about it?

With decreased positive affect it seems like there would be less to grab onto from a CBT perspective than increased negative affect.  Sure, CBT would suggest behavioural activation and all that crap, but I’ve done that before and it doesn’t make a difference.  It’s not that I’m biased against behavioural activation in its various forms, and I think it’s the kind of thing that can be quite effective for some people some of the time, but personally I’ve tried activation with the hope of motivation following along later, and it just hasn’t happened.

That’s part of why my trip to Italy a few months back was important to me.  When I’m well, travelling is my passion; it’s what matters most to me, and I find it exciting and fulfilling and all that jazz.  The fact that I felt “meh” throughout the trip wasn’t necessarily all that emotionally distressing in and of itself, but I think it really reinforced in my head that the lack of happiness truly is a capacity issue rather than a circumstances issue.

Is happiness out of reach?

So if lack of happiness is in fact a capacity issue, is there any point in trying to choose happiness?  I’m not saying I shouldn’t look for positives.  I keep a daily gratitude log, and I make a point of writing down accomplishments and other positive things in my bullet journal.  I try to be very attentive when it comes to practicing self-care.  All of these things are important to help keep negativity at bay, and I certainly intend to continue doing them.

But trying to find happiness or joy where there is none available seems kind of like an exercise in futility.  It’s not that I haven’t felt those things before; I used to experience them quite regularly.  But I’ve come to accept that illness has taken that away from me, at least for the time being.  It’s not a conclusion that has much emotion attached to it, and it’s not something that I’m invested in, in the sense that I wouldn’t be willing to let it go.  But for now, at least, it just is.

Do you struggle more with lack of positives or excess negatives?  Do you think it makes a difference in how we experience our illnesses?

book cover: Managing the Depression Puzzle by Ashley L. Peterson

Managing the Depression Puzzle takes a holistic, everything up to and including the kitchen sink look at how to put together the pieces of your unique depression puzzle. It’s available on Amazon and other online retailers, as well as the MH@H Store.

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28 thoughts on “Depression & Emotions: Positive & Negative Affect”

  1. I too struggled with last weeks. I didn’t find it assisted in ways to improve your routines. For someone who is trying to seek the light in the bleak, I didn’t think last weeks would do it for anyone. This week the list action part peaked my interests and so I will continue with the series but it’s possible I may have put too many expectations on the book itself.

  2. I’d say I’m more excess negatives. I think it can certainly make a difference in how we experience our illnesses because I don’t believe there’s one cure for one and not the other, it really depends on the person and it’s better seek out a tailored therapy based around your own experiences and emotions. Therapy never worked for me either but I believe there is something for all of us that will, we just have to find what works for us xx

  3. I am not a fan of CBT, because, well, it doesn’t help much when the things you fear from PTSD *keep happening.* Like, the 9th Circle of Hell last year managed to out negative my worst predictions, so CBT would have been pretty useless when reality became *worse* than my mind conjured. But, definitely I think my particular flavor of depression alongside ADHD and PTSD involves a chronic lack of positive affect even when there isn’t necessarily an increased negative affect. I’ve seen that chronic inability to just believe in a positive future or know what “joy” is supposed to be like be described as one of the thing complex trauma most takes from you. And, well, ADHD is fairly directly treated with more dopamine. I wonder where dissociation fits in all this, though. Part of the reason I don’t fit classic depression is that I will just numb out to the point of complete dissociation if the negative experiences- externally or internally- get too intense. And, well, living most of your life in a state of semi-permanent dissociation is a great survival strategy for surviving the negative experiences you can’t escape, but also makes it virtually impossible to feel anything, including the positive. Anxiety and depression can come with their own flavors of dissociation without the need for trauma, so I wonder how that fits in to multi-year episodes. Can the body numb out to survive its own mind like a trauma survivor numbs out to survive external circumstances?

  4. I try not to control any situation with my emotions anymore. I know dealing with situational depression do to grief is different though.
    I do sometimes get anxiety even when it is a positive thing. I don’t know why.

      1. Tell me about it! It’s so crazy! People don’t understand me, they think my problems are “petty”, or “your life is so amazing”!
        And for the most part it is, I don’t mean to offend when I say this – getting my faith in God back has really helped. I’m no Preacher nor do I beat down the church doors on Sunday. I’m settling back in to my spiritual side, and when I’m really in it, I feel the peace.

        1. There is nothing better to me than having peaceful feelings. Much like the way I feel when spending time with my daughter. Have a wonderful day.

  5. I would be lying if I said I was always positive, and cheerful all the time. The illness has taken a toll on me in so many aspects of my life. Back in September, I was truly fearful that I wasn’t going to get out of that overwhelming feeling of depression and the feeling of doom being around the corner. All the red flags were up.
    I knew that I had to do a great deal of research on Medicare and medical insurance, but it was a mountain of which I couldn’t climb alone. Thank goodness my roommate was there to help me get through that period of time.
    Back then is was purely all excess of negatives, that is why I fell off with my writing, and everything else in the way.
    I was grateful that my therapist would speak to me over the phone during this time as well.
    I really attribute me feeling more positive and motivated now that I am back on the Lamictal. I make jokes about it, but it truly is my golden pill. (not the cure all mind you) but I am feeling much better since September, it’s like night & day.

  6. This is a really interesting question, and first and foremost, I wish you could feel happiness about things. If I could wave my Mr. Kitty-shaped magic wand and make it happen for you, I would!!

    I think with my illness, I have to fight off the bad thoughts, but there’s no reduction in good ones. A lot of my compulsive bad thoughts go straight back to my mother. My paranoid ones go straight back to workplace bullying (and a bit of my inherent nature), and all negative thoughts can be tied into PMS.

    But fortunately, a lot of ridiculous stuff can make me happy, like making a sale on eBay (I’m currently selling stuff from my mom’s and her late husband’s estate), or whatever. I really wish that for you!! 🙂 I mean, not eBay selling, but general happy thoughts!! 🙂

      1. Thank you!!

        You know I’m a bit psychic, right? I think you’ll find something that makes you happy this year, hidden away like a present. It will be great!!

  7. I think I have both reduced positive and increased negative effects. I have little energy or motivation much of the time, as well as anhedonia, but also intense loneliness, pessimism (if not despair), guilt and self-hatred. Also suicidal ideation, which I guess would be increased negative too.

  8. I seem to have increased negatives. I’ve been battling this for 20 yrs. I really feel that the reason why we are depressed has a great deal to do with which category we may fall into. For instance, even though I am clinically depressed, I suffer from PTSD. I was assaulted by my estranged husband. After the traumatic event, seems like I lost all feelings for anything that made me happy. I felt worse for him than I did myself.

  9. In my experience, I have to make an effort if I want to be happier. I can’t guarantee that the things I do will make me feel happy, but I know that if I don’t at least try, I don’t get the benefits the activity might have given me. Does that make sense?
    I have suffered from both of the things you describe here at different times, but I think I am more likely to slip into heavy negativity. Meds never helped much, so I have to do what I can to help with that — gratitude practice, focusing on the positive, and making the effort to do the things I know I love, even when I don’t feel all that excited about it. I often get more excited and feel happy later on, during or after the activity, so in the end it works. But if I wait until I “feel like it,” I never start.

      1. Sad but true. Just today my husband pointed out that while I usually resist going on a walk, I am almost always glad afterwards that I went. I just have to remember that in advance!

  10. I have been thinking about the concept of joy lately. When I was at my lowest point with depression what had missing was joy. Through medication and counselling I improved and was once again able to be in awe of the world. Some people say you must go out and find joy. I dont look at it that way. Depression robs you of vitality and joy and until depression leaves, joy cannot find its way into your life. Do what you can to help yourself, use medication, counseling, friends, love. Only then will joy return unannounced. See my post Depression and Reading: The Hidden Life of Trees for my take on joy.

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