Why Do I Get Depressed At Night And What Can I Do About It?

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Erban, LMFT, IMH-E
Updated April 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Do you sometimes struggle at night and wonder why? Perhaps you try to go to sleep, but your negative feelings get in the way. What is it that causes the phenomenon of being depressed at night only? Beyond that, what can you do about it once it starts? 

The following are some of the reasons depressive symptoms might happen to you at night and a few tips for managing it if it does.

Is nighttime depression real?

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Learn why people feel depressed at night

Some people feel they’re only depressed at night and feel fine during the day. However, depression isn’t usually something that happens just at night. Your feelings of depression might be worse at night, but if you have depression, it may be 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 signs of clinical depression, a mental illness that can be treated.

  • Feelings of sadness, worthlessness, or guilt
  • Changes in weight, appetite, or sleep patterns
  • Loss of pleasure in things you once enjoyed
  • Trouble concentrating
  • The feeling of being slowed down
  • Feelings of restlessness or agitation
  • Fatigue

If you notice any of these symptoms interfering with the way that you live, it may be time to seek professional help. You can find more information about doing so through online therapy below.

Why you might feel sad at night

There are many reasons you might experience nighttime depression symptoms. Addressing these concerns may help you overcome these feelings more quickly. Below are some of the problems behind these nighttime emotions and a few suggestions and lifestyle changes that may help to resolve them.

Problem #1: Exposure to light at night

Being exposed to light at night can increase feelings of sadness. Scientists are beginning to explore the exact changes that happen in the brain when you’re exposed to dim light. One study found that dendritic spine density was reduced for hamsters exposed to even dim light at night. What scientists already know is that dim light at night can affect your brain function.

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 changes in mood or even mood disorders. It may not be just night shift workers who experience this phenomenon. It can happen to anyone who is exposed to artificial light in the overnight hours. You may not even have to be exposed to bright light. 

Solutions for this problem might be easier for most people who don’t work at night. You can make your bedroom as dark as possible when you’re ready to go to sleep. Here are a few tips:

  • Try not to use a nightlight all night. Instead, you can turn a lamp on and off with the switch or use a touch lamp as needed.
  • Reduce artificial light from the 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, try turning off your electronic devices, including your tablet, your TV, and even your phone. Research shows a relationship between melatonin levels and exposure to blue light, such as that emanating from screens.
  • Cover bright clocks. If you have a clock on your nightstand, you might make 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 may be more problematic. If you work nights, you might work with a doctor and/or therapist to make the best decisions about managing your sleep habits.

Problem #2: Problems with circadian rhythm

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 can impact 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 they have the lowest energy due to their circadian rhythm. When your circadian rhythm is disrupted, you may be more likely to experience sadness and poor sleep quality. 

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, the stress can affect your brain and contribute to feeling depressed at night.

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Not everyone has the exact same circadian rhythm. But for most people, it may be best to be active during the day, do restful things before bedtime, and sleep through the night. Getting outside during the day may help. 

If you can’t sleep at night, practicing good sleep hygiene can help. You might find that it helps to do something that’s quiet and relaxing before bed, and avoid using screens for a couple of hours before your scheduled bedtime. You may also find it helpful to establish a regular routine for rising and going to bed that can match your natural rhythms and help your brain recognize when it is appropriate to be energetic.

Problem #3: The chronotype disadvantage

Having a unique chronotype may 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 that of 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.

Although chronotype is biological, 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, you might try to accept that chronotype and not fight against it. One strategy might be to get up an hour or two later than an early bird does if you can. You might try opening the curtains and letting in the light. You might even go outside and exercise. By the same token, if you can’t go to bed as early as an early bird, you might accept this but just decide not to stay up all night.

Problem #4: Fatigue

Your day’s activities may make you very tired. This fatigue may help some people go to sleep more easily, but for others, it just heightens the symptoms of depression and makes them feel down.

Ilona Titova/EyeEm
Learn why people feel depressed at night

During the day, you can try to pace yourself, take breaks, and eat healthy snacks so that you aren’t pushing yourself to exhaustion.

If you’re feeling unusual fatigue, you might talk to your physician to make sure that you don’t have a medical condition that’s causing it, such as chronic fatigue syndrome

Problem #5: Rumination

Rumination is the act of turning the day’s events or past conflicts over and over in your mind. It can sometimes be a serious problem and a major factor leading you to feel sad at night, or even focus on heavy existential questions of life and death. You may feel that if you think about your problems enough, you’ll find a solution. Perhaps you just have a hard time getting arguments or disappointments out of your head, or maybe you rehearse better things you could have said or done, even when the incident won’t likely ever be repeated.

Rumination may lead to thoughts like, “This always happens to me,” or “Why can’t I do things better?” Instead of dwelling on what you think your weaknesses are, you might think of one thing you can do to resolve the situation or handle it more appropriately. Then, you can try to let it go for the night, knowing that you’ll take care of it tomorrow. 

Practicing journaling your positive thoughts or meditation may also be an effective way to release such negative thoughts and let your mind drift peacefully as you prepare for sleep. As an added bonus, these practices can also reduce stress.

Other factors and solutions

Feeling sad 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 may be to spend time with friends and family during the day. Then, during the night, you might try to remember that your friends will be there tomorrow and that the sense of loneliness won’t last forever.

Sound levels may also make a difference. If distractions in the environment rob you of a quiet atmosphere, 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 an electric fan may help you fall asleep more easily.

Is it time to seek help?

Feeling sad at night once in a while may not cause excessive disturbances. However, when you’ve tried to resolve your feelings on your own but you’re still feeling sad night after night, it may be time to look into mental health resources for help. This is especially true if you notice worsening feelings, use alcohol to help you sleep, have insomnia, or use substances to help cope with your depression symptoms.

If you’re feeling depressed, a counselor may be able to help you identify factors that trigger sad feelings. They might also teach you how to examine your negative thoughts and develop more positive ones. A therapist experienced in treating depression may also guide you as you change to healthier sleeping habits and encourage you as you get involved in positive daytime activities to help combat depression at night. 

Help for feelings of sadness that happen at night is available through BetterHelp, where you can connect with a counselor for online therapy. Online therapy has been found to be just as effective as in-person therapy for several concerns, including depression and anxiety. 

With BetterHelp, you don’t have to leave home for therapy, which may be challenging if you’re experiencing sadness and difficulty sleeping. You can also message your therapist at any time of day or night when you experience depression symptoms, and they’ll get back to you as soon as they can.

Counselor review

Catalina Leonard, LMHC
Catalina Leonard is a generous and kind therapist who helped me find a path out of my depression. She supported me, helped me find tools to better myself, Listened, and put in a lot of effort to know and understand me. I appreciate her help and am thankful to have gotten her as my therapist.”

Takeaway

If you’re experiencing feelings of sadness at night, know that you are not alone. This is a common experience, and there are licensed therapists with experience helping people address and manage nighttime depression. You may find that talking to a counselor can give you valuable insight and help you sleep better at night, which can lead to better overall health and well-being. Reach out to BetterHelp today.

Depression is treatable, and you're not alone
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