Why Do I Get Depressed At Night And What Can I Do About It?
By Julia Thomas
Updated May 19, 2020
Feeling depressed at night is no fun. You're trying to go to sleep, but your sad or negative feelings get in the way. Or, you can't sleep at all and spend your time trying to occupy yourself so you can make it through the night without getting too distressed. It can be miserable. So what is it that causes this phenomenon? Beyond that, what can you do about it once it starts? The following are some of the reasons it might happen to you and a few tips for dealing with it if it does.
Is Night Time Depression Real?
Many people feel they're only depressed at night and fine during the day. The thing about depression, though, is that it isn't something that happens to you just at night. Your feelings of depression might be worse at night but if you have depression, it's probably affecting you in some way during daytime hours, too. Here are some of the symptoms that could indicate that your feelings of depression may actually be clinical depression.
- Feelings of sadness
- Feeling worthless or guilty
- Changes in weight or appetite
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Loss of pleasure in things once enjoyed
- Trouble concentrating
- Feeling slowed-down
- Feeling restless or agitated
Why You Might Feel Depressed at Night
There are many reasons you might feel depressed during the nighttime hours. Often, addressing these issues can help you avoid clinical depression or overcome it more quickly if you already have it. Here are some of the problems behind nighttime depression and some suggestions for how to resolve them.
Problem: Exposure to Light at Night
Being exposed to light at night can increase feelings of depression. If you work at night, you're likely in a brightly-lit environment at night. This nighttime illumination may influence the way your brain works. Because of this, it may make you more prone to depression and other mood disorders.
It isn't just shift workers who experience this phenomenon either. It can happen to anyone who is exposed to artificial light in the overnight hours. What's more, you don't even have to be exposed to bright light. Scientists are beginning to explore the exact changes that happen in the brain when you're exposed to dim light. One study found that the dendritic spine density was reduced for hamsters exposed to dim light at night. What scientists already know is that dim light at night impacts your brain function.
Solutions for this problem are easy for most people who don't work at night. Simply make your bedroom as dark as possible when you're ready to go to sleep. Here are a few tips:
- Don't leave a nightlight on all night. Instead, you can turn your lamp on and off with the switch or use a touch lamp as needed.
- Reduce artificial light from outside. If there's light coming into your bedroom from outside your home, you may need to get blackout curtains or heavy drapes.
- Avoid screen-time before bed. About an hour before bedtime, turn off your electronic devices, including tablet, TV, and even your phone. Dim the lights and give your body time to prepare for sleep.
- Cover bright clocks. If you have a clock on your nightstand, be sure its illuminated face or numerals aren't creating too much light. If you need to, you can cover up the face of the clock with a dark cloth while you're trying to sleep.
For people who work at night, sleep issues can be more problematic. If you do shift work, the best thing you can do is to work with a doctor and/or therapist to make the best decisions about managing your sleep habits. Or, you can consider whether the benefits of working the night shift (better pay, less stress, and for some, having a job at all) outweigh your need to avoid the sleep problems that can contribute to depression. The answer isn't always clear, but talking to a therapist can help you consider what decision is right for you.
Problem: Disordered Circadian Rhythm
When your circadian rhythm is disrupted, you're more likely to have depression. Your circadian rhythm, mainly controlled in the hypothalamus of your brain, is like a 24-hour clock that tells your body when to be alert and when to rest. It impacts your energy level. For most people, the middle of the night between 2 and 4 am and the afternoon between 1 and 3 pm are the times when you have the lowest energy due to your circadian rhythm.
Factors like light and darkness influence this rhythm and can cause it to be disrupted. Then, you may feel sleepy during the times you used to feel the most alert and wide awake when you want to sleep. When the rhythm is off, it affects your brain and can contribute to depression.
Not everyone has the exact same circadian rhythm. But for most people, it's best to be active during the day, do restful things before bedtime, and sleep at night. Getting outside during the daytime can help. If you can't sleep at night, it's best to do something that's quiet and relaxing.
Problem: The Chronotype Disadvantage
Having the wrong chronotype can put you at greater risk for depression, too. Chronotype refers to your customary sleep patterns - when and how long you sleep. Your chronotype might be a night owl, an early bird, or something in the middle. One study found that older women with late chronotypes, such as the night owl, had a significantly higher risk of depression.
There's really nothing you can do to change your chronotype, although it may change slowly and naturally as you age. It's a biological function that's based mainly on genetics. What you can do is make the best choices within your chronotype. If you're a night owl, accept that chronotype and don't try to fight against it. Get up an hour or two later than an early bird if you can. But do get up and get active in the morning rather than waiting until afternoon to climb out of bed for the day. Open the curtains and let in the light, or better yet, go outside and exercise. By the same token, if you can't go to bed as early as an early bird, don't worry about it. Just don't stay up all night.
Your day's activities can make you very tired. This fatigue may help some people go to sleep more easily. For others, it just makes them feel sad and depressed.
You may not be able to do anything about being tired after a hard day's work. If you're feeling unusual fatigue, talk to your physician to make sure that you don't have a medical condition that's causing it. During the day, you can try to pace yourself, take breaks, and eat healthy snacks so that you aren't pushing yourself into exhaustion.
Rumination can be a serious problem and a major factor in night time depression. What is it? It's turning the day's events or past conflicts over and over in your mind. You may feel that if you think about them enough, you'll find a solution. Or you might just have a hard time getting arguments or disappointments out of your head. You might rehearse better things you could have said or things you could have done, even when the incident won't likely ever be repeated.
Rumination often leads to thoughts like "This always happens to me" or "Why can't I do things better?" or even "What's wrong with me?" Instead of dwelling on what you think your weaknesses are, think of one thing you can do to resolve the situation or deal with it more appropriately. Then, let it go for the night, knowing that you'll take care of it tomorrow. Practicing meditation is also an effective way to release such negative thoughts and let your mind drift peacefully as you prepare for sleep.
Other Factors and Solutions
Being depressed at night may have something to do with other factors as well. For people who live alone, nighttime may be the only time when they're completely alone. Without the companionship of other people, they may feel acute loneliness during the overnight hours. One way to combat nighttime loneliness is to spend time with friends and family during the day. Then during the night, remember that your friends will be there tomorrow and the loneliness won't last forever.
Sound levels can also make a difference. If the environment isn't quiet enough, you may have trouble going to sleep. But if it's too quiet, you may tend to ruminate or feel anxious. Using a white noise machine, an audio recording of mixed frequencies, or even having an electric fan running can help you fall asleep more easily.
Is It Time to Seek Help?
Being depressed at night once in a while won't cause too many problems for you. When you've tried to resolve your depressed feelings on your own but you're still feeling bad night after night, it's time to get help.
A counselor can help you identify factors that trigger depressed feelings. They can also teach you how to examine your negative thoughts and choose more positive ones. They can guide you as you change to healthier sleep habits and encourage you as you get involved in positive daytime activities. They can also help you develop greater self-esteem.
Help for depressed feelings that happen at night is available through BetterHelp, where you can connect with a counselor for online therapy. You can overcome the negative thoughts and feelings that are making your night times miserable. Then you can sleep better, have more positive emotions, and live a mentally healthier life.