Ep 252: Feeling Blah? Recapture Life's Highs

Tanith Cary, author of Feeling Blah?, clues us in on the science behind anhedonia, the technical term for “feeling blah.” Teens are reporting high levels of depression and anhedonia—we explore what parents can do to combat it. 

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Full Show Notes

Tanith Carey, author of Feeling Blah?, clues us in on the science behind anhedonia, the technical term for “feeling blah.” Teens are reporting high levels of depression and anhedonia—we explore what parents can do to combat it. 

Does your teenager get into moods where everything just feels “blah”? Where school, practice and hobbies no longer generate the kind of enthusiasm they used to, and it seems like all the joy has been sucked out of life?

It might feel like your teen is struggling with a deep, existential crisis, but it could be related to a condition known as anhedonia. Anhedonia can affect us all but it is becoming increasingly prevalent among teenagers.

Learning to recognize the signs and knowing what to do - and, sometimes, what not to say - is key to teaching our kids to manage their own emotional systems and lead fulfilled, joyful lives.

To explain the neuroscience behind why anhedonia leaves people feeling joyless and how we can help our kids recapture that joy, we’re talking to Tanith Carey, author of Feeling Blah

Tanith is an award-winning author and journalist with 13 books on psychology, mental health and adolescence that have been published and translated into 35 languages, and has written articles on mental health in adolescents and much more for media outlets all around the world. 

In our interview, we’re talking about understanding what anhedonia means for our kids, teaching them how happiness works in the brain, and the practical steps we can take to help our kids build and maintain their emotional wellbeing.

Name It To Tame It

Unless you know the word for it, it’s more difficult to fix it, says Tanith as she explains why she wants to bring the word “anhedonia” out of research papers and into public discourse.

We might be able to recognize that we are in a state of “blah” but without the ability to name this feeling and understand how it works, how can we expect to combat it? We end up feeling stuck and this is a major problem for our teens, says Tanith, as teens don’t think that feeling “blah” is something that you can do anything about. 

Tanith defines anhedonia as a state of loss of enjoyment and also a lack of motivation. It is well known clinically as a symptom of depression but more and more research now shows that it is a standalone condition too. You can not be depressed but still feel “blah.” 

Anhedonia is on the rise and teenagers aren’t as happy as they used to be, Tanith says. This has been happening in concurrent generations since the 1950s so that we may now think it is normal or acceptable to not be excited about what we are doing. The joy is being squeezed out of our young people, she says, and there are many contributing factors, including the education system and the lost concept of “spark,” which we talk about in the episode. 

But as parents we shouldn’t accept this state of “blah” as the status quo for our teens, she says. It’s really important that we show our teenagers how to flourish and not to languish. 

As a society, we have a lot of challenges to face, Tanith says, and we need motivated, flourishing young people who understand the pressure that modern life is having on their brain chemistry and know that they are not stuck.

How Does Happiness Work In The Brain?

Tanith and I talk about how when you ask parents, “What do you want for your child?”, by and large the most common thing they say is, “I want them to be happy.” But parents don’t really know how to make their kids happy, Tanith says, and kids don’t know how to make themselves happy, because they don’t understand the work of the reward circuit.

The brain’s reward circuit comes in three parts, as Tanith explains in the episode. The first part is anticipation. Joy is the anticipation, the building up of the dopamine chemical - this is the enjoyment in the moment. Next comes the release of dopamine when fulfilling that anticipation. And finally, the third part is remembering the event, what made you happy, so that you want to do it again.

Because the fact is for adolescents, Tanith says, life is stressful. They are under a lot of pressure and so their brains are overloaded with the stress hormone cortisol. She explains that there are no psychological issues which don’t have raised cortisol implicated in some way, crowding out dopamine and the three phases of the reward circuit. 

But the great thing is, Tanith says, that we know more about the working of the brain than at any point in history. We can see how joy is formed in the brain, so it’s time to harness that knowledge against anhedonia. 

We need to accept that modern life is difficult and give our kids the understanding of what is actually going on in their brains to help them to push back. Adolescence is a great time to get these ideas in place, she says.

When Saying Less, Is More

Once we identify and understand the state of feeling “blah,” then we can begin to address it in our parenting. In the episode, Tanith shares some of the things parents can do to teach our young people the skills they need to be happy.

And the first thing, Tanith says, may feel counterintuitive. We tend to intensely worry about our children and so lean into actively coaching and guiding; but to the sensitive ears of a teen, they hear it as criticism. We as parents need to spend more time encouraging our teens to notice how they feel and stop telling them how they feel, she explains.

Parents need to be prepared to listen to uncomfortable emotions, to sit with their kids and just let them process. Unless teens have that interception, that noticing of what makes them feel bad, how are they going to know what is going to make them feel good?

One strategy that goes hand-in-hand with encouraging your children to notice how they feel is helping them to develop a stronger emotional vocabulary. Giving kids the words to describe how they feel helps them see the nuance in the “blah” and communicate this to their parents. 

Tanith shares more strategies families can use to improve communication and understanding between parents and teens, including tactics she employs with her own children such as taking part in a happiness-inducing activity together, like painting pottery or going for a nature walk, and making it a criticism-free zone. 

Parenting teenagers is a lot about what you don’t say, Tanith explains, not what you do say. It’s about equipping your kids with the tools to work it out and having faith that they will.

In the Episode…

We’ve got a jam-packed episode today with our return guest Tanith! On top of the topics discussed above, we also talk about:
  • The pressure of the “cookie cutter” education system
  • Helping your teen to find their “spark” and flourish
  • Setting a good example for managing your mental health
  • Bringing a growth mindset to happiness
Thanks for listening! If you want more from Tanith on Feeling Blah, you can find her on Instagram @NoMoreBlahBook. Don’t forget to share and subscribe, and we’ll see you next week!

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Tanith Carey
Tanith Carey
Author 13 books on psychology/parenting in 35 languages: 'Feeling Blah?', What's My Child/Teen Thinking?', The Friendship Maze", Taming The Tiger Parent'
Ep 252: Feeling Blah? Recapture Life's Highs
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