Fluctuating Motivation in Depression

Fluctuating motivation in depression: anhedonia can get in the way

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 inability to experience 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.

Slumping motivation

Anhedonia is a constant, but sometimes I’ll have dips in motivation as well. A few weeks ago (I think โ€“ 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 of articles 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.

Depression life

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?

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.

42 thoughts on “Fluctuating Motivation in Depression”

  1. I have S.A.D. For winter months. And so just now? A tiny thing will throw me off and I have difficulty working up any enthusiasm for anything much at all. So what I do for the ‘dips’ is remember they aren’t permanent, I do something ‘for me’…make a favorite dish I like to eat, talk to other folks (it’s amazing how hearing another’s story will lift the spirit), try to find a way I can help someone else. And there are days when I sit around in my pjs and don’t do anything at all. Even then I’ll make a big mug of my favorite tea or cocoa and sip that. It’s not easy to endure those dips, but they will end. Focusing on that is key in my opinion. I wish you well!

  2. I’m friends with some fairly big name children’s authors on Facebook, such as Jane Yolen, and she is constantly talking about all the rejections she still gets. That always makes me feel better! To have a career like hers and STILL get lots of rejections?

  3. Just accept that it’s just a period you’re going through, you’ll get it back. Sometimes we just need time for reflection so don’t force yourself to be motivated, hope this helps.

  4. Motivation is a huge issue for me. I go through phases where I’m ultra productive and am getting tons of stuff done and even more than needed then I have periods where it takes me like a week to start on something ridiculously simple because I have no energy. I’m trying to get myself to just do things despite not being motivated. It’s hard to deal with, especially with the spring semester having just started at my college. I need to go to the grocery store but can’t seem to get myself to do it, even though I don’t have much food in the house. Sometimes it has to do with weather. We just got 17 inches of snow the other day and it’s raining today so I really don’t feel up to going out in that mess…

    I hope you’re able to get your enthusiasm back ๐Ÿ™‚ I know how frustrating it is when it goes away

  5. I also see motivation as something that ebbs and flows. When it’s at rock bottom nothing much seems to work and I just have to wait out the dip, but it does seem to help if I have strategies in place to sort of “catch the wave” if there is even a small swell in motivation. I draw on both CBT behavioural activation techniques and the change cycle concept – recognising that thinking about doing things and setting up for doing things are important steps in the process of actually doing those things.

    For me at the moment that means just spending time in my workshop without any goal of “making something”. I might tidy a bit, have a look through my tubs of materials, do some maintenance or sharpening of my tools, or even just read or watch YouTube videos and have a cup of tea. I see it as fixing the habit in my mind of going out there and that being a pleasant thing to do. The making will come in time. The next step in would be setting up a couple of specific projects (getting together the tools/ materials/ instructions I need) so that it’s ready to go and I don’t lose my enthusiasm because something I need isn’t to hand. The equivalent for writing or online activity would be things like adding links to articles I’ve read and bookmarked previously, creating templates for new projects, organising my online photo albums.

    I’ve also found it helpful to set myself mini-projects aimed just at increasing creativity (usually about 5-10 things). Having a very low bar for what counts as a completed thing is important so I don’t get discouraged eg take an artfully cropped B&W picture with my phone, or write a haiku.

    But going back to that very first thing I said, sometimes none of that seems possible and the best I can do is try not to be too hard on myself for “doing nothing”.

    1. Iโ€™ve always found the CBT idea of motivation follows activation kind of frustrating, because it doesnโ€™t seem to work for me. I tend to better just waiting it out and doing nothing for a while.

  6. I think it’s important to allow yourself time to feel unmotivated. Don’t just say “No I can’t be like this”. I always tell myself that I’m human and I can have my moments but that I will continue on when I am done being a mope/worry wart on my couch.

  7. Those dips are really hard for me. Im such a goal-oriented person (I think some of that is if I keep moving in my mind then I dont have to feel) that when I have dips like that or Im stopped by illness, I go to this weird self-judgement place. Eventually Iโ€™m able to let myself be, and just go with the flow. I feel like the shade always goes up and I motivate again.

  8. I completely understand that your motivation is being affected by the uncertainty of health issues. It can be all-consuming not to mention draining. Plus, you add in the mental illness to the equation… It’s very difficult.
    Back in September, I was so deflated of energy, motivation to even lift my head off the pillow. Creativity escaped me. Between the physical problems, the depression was taking full reign over everything I enjoyed doing. A great deal of my energy was geared towards the medical insurance debacle. I placed so much pressure on myself because I couldn’t make heads or tails and make a decision. It was haunting me.
    I had just a small amount of motivation in order to take care of Peanut and make sure that my immediate surroundings were cleaned and in order, but that was it.
    My suggestion to you is simply this… Don’t pressure yourself. Just take things in stride. Take care of you first and foremost, the publishing can be placed on hold at the current moment.
    Another suggestion that works for me is writing a list of “Things to do” – I find that if I set a little schedule for myself, I must tackle it. It seems to help with being overwhelmed by the other things that are taking place around me.
    I hope this helps you, Ashley.

  9. You might not feel very motivated now. But you will certainly feel motivated again, maybe after a break. During my student’s time, there were many points when I felt unmotivated in writing. Taking a break and come back helps me. Judy remember not do feel guilty to take a break from writing

  10. I find my motivation comes and goes, I can be very enthusiastic about a project or a goal one day, then I just can’t be bothered. Your worries about your health will impact on your motivation as likely your mind is partially occupied in worrying about this. Just do what you can do at the moment x

  11. I handle dips in motivation through reminding myself that trouble or hard times don’t last always. I do get a moment of release. A chance to come out swing. A opportunity to regain my rightful place of being back on top. And by the way that’s awesome that you write books and are trying to get them published. I can’t wait until I write a book. Wish you best in going forth and never give up. Because having no motivation is more difficult than having a little motivation.

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