a pile of cigarettes

Addiction and Anhedonia

I had never heard of the term before I read this article from the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest. When an addict is going through withdrawal, one of the symptoms of course is craving. Addicts physically and psychologically crave the drug they are withdrawing from. But anhedonia is the phenomenon in which addicts going through withdrawal also experience a generalized inability to enjoy other pleasures. The biochemical processes that produces withdrawal symptoms also block the pleasure circuits. As withdrawal symptoms abate over time, so does the anhedonia. It is the correlation that suggests the relationship, but biochemical cause-effect should come soon.

The article cites a study of cigarette smokers who are trying to quit. On the first day, the cravings for nicotine and their subjective ratings of anhedonia are the highest. The reduction in nicotine cravings over time is correlated with the reduction in anhedonia. Using nicotine gum or patches reduces both the cravings and the anhedonia. The researchers used a diary study to log the participants’ experiences of both over time. Another finding of the study is that the initial magnitude of the anhedonia is inversely correlated with the likelihood that the participant would be successful at quitting. Which also makes sense if there is a biochemical relationship.

My Take

Anhedonia makes intuitive sense. Addictions are very tightly linked to neurotransmitters that regulate the pleasure circuits. The hit of dopamine you get from the drug messes up the biochemical pathways for everything else as well. I can’t imagine that evolution would create different pleasure circuits for every possible stimulus. So something that affects one is likely to affect the others as well. If your pleasure circuit is waiting around for nicotine, it is too busy to notice the other inputs. That is obviously an oversimplification, but conceptually it has a natural logic to it.

The second finding also makes sense. When your life is devoid of pleasure writ large, I can imagine that the cravings for whatever you have just given up become even more salient and desirable. It would be nice if the addiction could be replaced by something else, but the something else doesn’t work too well when your pleasure circuits are blocked. Quitters chew (non nicotine) gum not because it gives them pleasure but just so their mouth is busy. Many gain weight for similar reasons. And if nothing else can give you a real feeling of pleasure, you are more tempted to go back to the original, which your unconscious knows will do the trick. No wonder quitting is so hard.

I have a professional interest in this phenomenon because of my work in gamification. One of the techniques that we use is to design systems so that users build unconscious habits that facilitate use of the system as well as lock them in to it. Errors are less frequent when behaviors are triggered automatically and unconsciously. It is also hard to switch to a competitor when the behavior is largely unconscious until it is too late to stop. I don’t think that behavioral habits, even really strong ones, would have the same magnitude of anhedonia, but I am sure that some similar but moderated phenomena are present. There is evidence of dopamine and other neurotransmitters being involved in addictive behaviors such as gambling and gaming – especially the ones we casually refer to as addictive like some mobile games that have been discussed here recently.

Your Turn

So have you ever tried to quit an addiction? Smoking? Gambling? Alcohol? Candy Crush? I know this can be a private and touchy subject, so feel free to share hypotheticals if you prefer. Or stories about people you have known. Did they report anhedonia (probably not be that label though!)? Was that clearly linked to failures to quit?

Image Credit: PeterFranz

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