As I stood at the altar of one of the grandest churches in London, swathed in a Vera Wang dress of epic proportions, I was waiting to experience the most joy I’d ever felt.

Standing opposite was my gorgeous groom Anthony, with tears in his eyes, as he said what are some of the most eagerly anticipated words in the English language: “I take you to be my wedded wife.”

As I looked back at him, I waited to feel elation. After all, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that this was the man I wanted to marry. Yet it never came. Instead, I felt as if I was looking at myself down a long tunnel. I felt numb.

Tanith Carey
Tanith Carey is an author and journalist. She married her husband, Anthony, in 1999.
Tanith Carey

My wedding day, in 1999, stuck in my mind for a long time. After all, how was I ever going to be content if I couldn’t feel joy on what should have been the happiest day of my life?

After that day, I noticed there were other times when I couldn’t access my happy feelings either. Often I felt indifferent at parties and social events. When everyone around me looked like they were having fun, I felt I had to put on a mask.

There was that day I got a phone call from my agent with news of the best book deal of my career to date in 2008. While I could hear myself saying all the right words, there was no emotion behind them.

The fact that I wasn’t enjoying my life defied logic. After all, I was racing through the checklist of a “successful” life. I had a loving partner, a beautiful home, a stimulating career, and two happy healthy children—all the things that were supposed to add up to happiness.

On paper, I could see how great my life looked. Yet rather than being “in” it, I felt like an observer looking onto it.

I never mentioned it. What right did I have to moan about not enjoying my life when every day, my newsfeed was filled with other people dealing with tragedies or living with war, and famine. Shouldn’t I just count my blessings and keep quiet?

Despite telling myself to get a grip, the question still niggled at me. Surely, I couldn’t be the only person in this position who felt like this?

As an author and journalist, my job is to be curious. So, putting my guilt to one side, late one night in bed two years ago, I decided to Google: “Why aren’t I enjoying my life?”

I’d like to say there was a more exciting story behind how I found the answer, but in 0.63 seconds, the offer of 6,770,000,000 results flashed up on my screen.

One of the first headlines that jumped out at me was: “Don’t enjoy anything anymore? There’s a name for that.” The piece was by a psychologist who called this state of existence “anhedonia”. So, there was a word for it.

I read on to find that anhedonia is a state well known to psychiatrists and brain researchers. From the Greek for without pleasure, it’s defined as losing the ability to get joy from things you used to like.

Gripped, I kept reading. Although it is often a symptom of major depressive disorder, I also discovered you don’t need to be depressed to be in anhedonia. You could be ticking along, getting on with life, appearing just fine to everyone else, with everything you need, except the mental bandwidth to enjoy it.

After taking this in, my immediate question was: “Why have I never heard this word before?” After all, we hear so much about one of modern life’s most pernicious illnesses, depression, at one end of the mental health spectrum, and happiness at the other.

Why do we hear nothing about the gray space in between—even though it’s the area where so many of us live our lives?

I discovered anhedonia was more than just a half-hearted description of how many of us feel. There is a range of biological and environmental reasons.

Anhedonia can be how we feel when the modern world floods us with more of the stress hormone cortisol, and the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine, than our human brains were designed to cope with.

Tanith Carey
Tanith was a successful author and journalist, yet still struggled to feel joy in her day-to-day life.
Tanith Carey

But beyond this, I also discovered some of the reasons it can be so hard to really feel joy may be found in childhood.

During a conversation with life coach Jackie Kelm, who counsels people with emotional flat-lining as part of my research for the book, she told me that many of her clients had been helped by somatic, or body therapy.

Instead of revisiting traumatic events in childhood again and again in talk therapy, this alternative therapy approach looks at how our nervous systems are wired to react in early childhood.

Some researchers believe that when young children are in the presence of a threat they are too little to handle, their nervous system responds by reducing the flow of blood to the prefrontal cortex—a response that becomes hardwired into adulthood and causes them to dissociate, just as I had done on my wedding day.

Irene Lyon, an expert on somatic therapy and the nervous system, which looks at this connection, told me: “People don’t have to have been abused in childhood to have hypervigilance or dissociation.

“They could have witnessed something out of their control, not received comfort afterwards, or had their feelings ignored, dismissed or denied.

“It could be that your mum and dad hated each other and argued a lot. Or they were super busy with their work and they paid very little attention to your feelings or needs.

“So children cope by taking themselves out of their bodies. People who dissociate will say things like: ‘I saw myself from above, I floated up’.

“At the time, it felt like a superpower that could help us, but dissociation persists when we don’t need it anymore. It can show up as not feeling joy in joyful situations too.”

Tanith Carey
Tanith is pictured with her daughter, Clio.
Tanith Carey

This explained a lot. My parents had an extremely unhappy marriage, often punctuated by intense arguments. Perceiving that what was happening around me wasn’t safe, dissociation had become my way to cope.

Over the following months, I worked on going back to some of the traumatic incidents I could remember in childhood and re-parented myself.

In other words, I revisited the child I had been in my mind and offered her calm and soothing words that she needed then but didn’t get.

Gradually, I started noticing when these feelings of dissociation took over and took steps to ground myself and bring myself back to my body. There are many approaches, but this could be anything from breathing slowly and noticing my breath, to smelling something with a strong smell.

If all this sounds challenging, don’t be daunted.

Initially, simple awareness is the first step in the right direction. Remind yourself that you’re safe now.

As I worked my way out of anhedonia, the world is now no longer in a palette of muted gray but in a much more varied range of colors. The world is in sharp focus too. I no longer feel like I am viewing the world from behind a pane of frosted glass.

Finally, both the tears—and the laughter—come much more easily.

Tanith Carey is author of Feeling ‘Blah’? Why Anhedonia Has Left You Joyless and How to Recapture Life’s Highs’, published by Welbeck, $21.20

All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

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