Fluctuating motivation in mental illness means that sometimes, things are happening, while other times, the wheels just fall right off.
Motivation follows activation?
A basic element of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for depression is behavioural activation. The idea is that motivation follows activation, meaning if you force yourself to do stuff, you’ll start to feel better and get more motivated.
It never worked for me, though. I used to take dance classes as my main form of physical activity. I had no interest in doing them, but I knew that physical activity is supposed to be good for depression, and motivation was supposed to follow activation. But motivation didn’t come, and I figured the whole thing was just a load of crap.
The anhedonia factor
I recently had a bit of an aha moment while reading another blogger’s post. I realized that motivation wasn’t the main source of the problem. The real issue was anhedonia. Anhedonia, or loss of interest pleasure, can occur as a symptom of depression and other illnesses, including schizophrenia. It’s a major element of my depression, and on average, it’s had a greater impact than low mood has. At any given moment, it doesn’t feel as bad as depressed mood, but when it’s persistent, it casts a rather grey light over everything.
The assumption with behavioural activation is that activating will actually make you feel good. But if anhedonia takes feeling good off the table, I can activate until the cows come home and it isn’t going to accomplish anything. I can force myself to do things, but it’s like pissing in the wind for all the good it does me.
Anhedonia is a constant, but sometimes I’ll have dips in motivation as well. A few weeks ago (I think – I’m not good at remembering time in a relative sense) I was feeling pretty motivated. Maybe my concentration wasn’t the best, but I had several things on the go and I was keeping busy shuffling back and forth amongst these various things. I had to use lists to keep track because I have a hard time juggling multiple things in my head at the same time.
This week isn’t like that. I feel aimless. I have some books downloaded that I want to read, but haven’t gotten started on yet. There are some drafts I’ve started for blog posts, but I don’t really care enough to finish them right now. There are also some other writing projects I’ve started but don’t have the drive to work on.
I think another reason for my decreased motivation is being distracted by concerns about my physical health. That feels very heavy right now, and it’s hard to be motivated when I’m carrying around a rhino on my back (I was trying to think of an animal and there’s a photo of a rhino on my wall, so rhino it is). It feels like uncertainty has stalled me in a sort of mental no-man’s-land.
Motivation and writing
I recently had a couple pieces that I’d submitted to publications that weren’t accepted, plus some that it’s been long enough since I submitted that I’m unlikely to hear back from them. I know that it’s totally par for the course and I don’t take it as a rejection of me in general, but I do find it drains my energy. Given that I don’t have a lot of that to begin with, I think it’s probably good to take a bit of a step back from trying to write for platforms that are more competitive (in the sense that there’s a reasonably good chance of rejection).
I have no intention of trying to make a living as a writer, so I think I’m better off trying to focus my limited energy, attention, and motivation on things that will give the most mental bang for my buck, so to speak. If there isn’t a lot of motivation to go around, it makes sense to focus it where it will do me the most good.
In the last year or so, I’ve given up pushing myself to keep doing things just because, in general, they’re supposed to be helpful for depression. All along, I put it down to motivation following activation just not being true. But now I think that comes at it from not quite the right direction. Motivation can follow when activation produces a pleasurable reward. If there’s no pleasurable reward following activation, motivation is irrelevant; there’s still no positive feeling toward the activity.
This realization doesn’t actually change anything in my life, but insight is something I value with regards to my illness, and I like it when pieces, even little ones, start to fit together.
In terms of motivation itself, I guess the natural state of things is that it will ebb and flow like the tide. Motivation is low now, but it will come back in its own time.
How do you manage dips in motivation?