When we think of depression, it's easy to mistakenly associate it with profound sadness…but if you've ever been depressed, you'll know all too well the sense of emotional numbness that comes with this mental state.
Depression leaves you feeling detached from the world; a passionate uni student will become paralysed at the thought of starting an assignment, a keen runner will give up training, and a social butterfly suddenly wants do nothing but stay in bed.
Psychologists refer to this state as 'anhedonia', where the things that define you lose all appeal – a consequence of the emotional flatness underlying depression. Anhedonia is what feeds the "I have nothing to look forward to" mentality, even when in reality this is not the case.
What causes emotional numbness?
Be it divorce or a near-death experience, a traumatic event can lead to emotional detachment - but not everyone with depression has undergone trauma. Recent research tells us that emotions are more likely to be entirely absent in those with a trauma history, with both positive and negative emotions being blunted for self-protection. If there is no trauma history, positive emotions are typically dulled, but negativity soldiers on.
Paradoxically, anti-depressants can occasionally worsen depression, producing the side effect of 'emotional anaesthesia'; this is why ongoing follow-ups with your medical professional are essential.
Is there a link between anxiety and lack of emotion?
Anyone who has experienced high anxiety will know it comes with mental and physical exhaustion. Depleting you of your emotional energy, it can leave you feeling like you have nothing left to give, with sleep often being the only respite.
But is there anything wrong with feeling less sadness and pain?
While you'd think it might be nice to have a mental holiday from some of the harder emotions, they are an essential part of human existence. To understand and experience true happiness, we need to have been hurt deeply by a loved one, or profoundly saddened at the loss of something or someone we see as vital.
Then there's the loneliness. Without your normal range of emotions, it becomes increasingly difficult to engage. A withdrawal process is fostered, resulting in a viscous cycle where you don't engage because you're withdrawn, and you're withdrawn because you don't engage. Connections with everyone from colleagues and loved ones can be significantly impacted, putting jobs and personal relationships on the line.
Can depression and anxiety affect memory?
Not being able to remember the last time you took a shower, or perhaps hitting a mind-blank when a recent event is mentioned, depression really does feel like a deadweight on your brain…so you may feel like you're losing it, but you're not! The 'mental fog' of depression makes focusing a challenge. Once easy-to-tackle tasks become arduous, be it writing a basic work email, having that shower, or pouring milk on your cereal.
'Mood dependent memory' also comes into play with depression, where you can only remember experiences that match how you currently feel. A recent pay rise for instance will be outshone by something like a relationship breakup from six months back.
The flight-or-fight mode of high anxiety also hijacks our ability to focus, allowing us only to hone in on whatever we perceive as a threat. It's impossible to absorb what's happening in your favourite TV show, or take in whatever your friend is going on about over coffee, when your body and mind have been taken over by a sense of impending doom - albeit unrealistic.
Am I stuck in this emotion-less state?
The reduced emotional state and mental alertness that come with depression and anxiety do not have to be your normal. Why not see your symptoms as a sign that you stand to benefit enormously from good quality mental health care?
The first step of recovery, having the cause of your emotional detachment identified can feel like a weight has been lifted. With suitable treatment and monitoring, you will wake up one day and find you actually want to get out of bed to connect with the others.
"I've tried addressing my depression and anxiety before, but with little success."
Don't give up hope. The trick is finding the right approach, and the right professional, for you. Although symptoms of depression and anxiety can be similar for different people, their specific causes can vary significantly, and there is no one-size-fits-all treatment.
A combination of medication and talk therapy can be the key, but some respond to either approach alone. A trial and error process, AKA 'hypothesis testing' may be needed; rather than seeing this as a failure of a treatment endeavor, view it as responsible method of continual care, the goal being to pinpoint the best individualised treatment.
Your GP is a good starting point on this journey, someone you are comfortable talking with about your experiences and needs. A referral can then direct you to the right specialist/s. They will work with you to get you out of the emotional darkness, and back into a world of meaningful experiences with the people you love.
Find Dr Lissa Johnson's full profile on Healthshare