Anhedonia (loss of pleasure) is characterized by low responsiveness to rewards and, by virtue of being one of the two core symptoms of depression, by altered responses to stress. We investigated the effect of an acute stress experience (i.e., a tandem skydive) that was expected to elicit both intense fear and intense euphoria in a sample of anhedonic young adults.
(1) To examine individual differences in alpha-amylase reactivity to and recovery from a tandem skydive in anhedonic young adults; (2) to investigate whether trait depressive and anxiety problems, trait positive affect (PA), i.e., level of pleasure and reward responsiveness, and state anxiety, PA and self-esteem prior to the skydive were associated with alpha-amylase reactivity and recovery patterns; (3) to investigate whether alpha-amylase reactivity and recovery patterns were associated with pre- to post-jump changes in state anxiety, PA, and self-esteem.
Participants were 61 individuals with persistent anhedonia (Mage = 21.38, 78.7% female), who filled out a baseline questionnaire at the start of the study, and momentary questionnaires (3 times per day) before and after the tandem skydive. Alpha-amylase was measured at four time points by means of salivettes (2 before and 2 after the skydive).
Alpha-amylase reactivity and recovery patterns were highly similar across individuals, although mean levels varied greatly. No associations were found between any of the trait and state measures and reactivity and recovery. Only state self-esteem was affected by the reactivity and recovery patterns, in that individuals who showed high reactivity and low recovery experienced decreases in self-esteem after the skydive.
Alpha-amylase patterns following a tandem skydive in anhedonic individuals are highly similar to patterns previously found in healthy individuals. Although replication is warranted, our findings tentatively suggest that a strong stress response that cannot be downregulated well predicts a decrease in self-esteem.
Anhedonia, the decreased interest and pleasure, is often described as ‘flat’ or ‘blunted’ positive affect (PA). Yet, little is known about PA functioning in anhedonic individuals’ daily lives. The current study investigates PA reactivity to pleasurable experiences in anhedonia together with its relevant temporal dynamics (i.e., variability, instability, and inertia), and expands current knowledge by exploring the role of arousal therein. Methods: Using the Experience Sampling Method (ESM), we collected 90 assessments of real-life PA experiences across 30 days in 18–24 year old individuals with anhedonia (N=69) and without anhedonia (N=69). Results: Multilevel analyses showed that anhedonia was associated with less intense pleasure experience, and lower levels of PA. Contrary to predictions from laboratory research and depression theory, individuals with anhedonia showed more variability and less stability in PA, and no signs of blunted PA reactivity. In fact, when exploring high and low arousal PA, individuals with anhedonia showed a slightly stronger reactivity to pleasurable experiences in high-arousal PA but not low-arousal PA. Limitations: We did not control for previous pleasure experiences and, instead of the last positive event, accumulation of positive events may have determined the change in high-arousal PA. Conclusions: Individuals with anhedonia are likely less ‘flat’ or ‘blunted’ than generally thought. Although replication is warranted, impairments in high-arousal positive emotions may be of particular interest in the clinical treatment of anhedonia.
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