An Integrated Approach to Young Adult Mental Health Rehab

Why Do I Feel Depressed at Night?

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Do you wish you knew how to stop feeling sad at night? If so, you’re not alone. The chat boards light up post-midnight with comments from people overcome by feelings of depression at night. “The silence of every night is a reminder of how alone I feel,” says one Reddit user. “I’m trapped in my own head with no one to talk to,” writes another. “Sometimes it just feels hopeless. But more often than not, when the sun comes up, I feel better,” remarks a third.

The answer to the question, “Why do I feel depressed at night?’ is a complex mix of what’s happening in your life, your personal biology, and a clash between human evolution and modern life. While many factors can be addressed through lifestyle changes, it may not simply be a question of how to stop feeling sad at night. Nighttime depression can in fact signal a serious mood disorder that is masked by the distractions of daytime activity. Here’s what you need to know to recognize the difference, and the steps you can take to find peaceful rest at night.

Rumination and Depression: Cause or Effect?

As the chat board comments reflect, sleepless nights invite an endless loop of negative thoughts, known as rumination. Those thoughts might include a rehash of recent events, worries about the future, or obsession with perceived personal shortcomings. It’s not hard to see the connection between persistent negative thoughts and feelings of sadness and depression. And with advances in brain research, it is now clear that the repetitive nature of those negative thoughts blazes a neural trail in the brain that makes the thoughts even harder to dislodge.

Genetic characteristics may make some people more prone to rumination in the first place. Stressful events, lifestyle factors, and habitual thinking traps can activate that vulnerability and allow ruminations to fester. And the cycle can work both ways. Although it is not among the criteria for diagnosis of depression, rumination is a characteristic feature of depressive disorders.

Identifying Major Depressive Disorder vs. Nighttime Depression

Is your evening depression related to a serious underlying depressive disorder? Clinical depression typically includes some or all of these additional symptoms:

  • Depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities that you used to enjoy
  • Significant weight gain or loss
  • Disrupted sleep patterns, either too much or too little
  • Slowed thinking or physical movement that is observable by others
  • Feelings of fatigue nearly every day
  • Feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt nearly every day
  • Poor concentration and focus
  • Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide 

Young adults who are experiencing any of these signs should schedule a depression screening with a doctor or mental health professional.

If the chat boards are any indication, loneliness is a frequent cause for evening depression in young adults. Loneliness is not the same as solitude. Rather, it is the feeling of distress caused by wanting companionship but not having it. Loneliness is a risk factor for depression. And depression also increases loneliness. People with depression are 10 times more likely to feel lonely than the general population. That may be because they isolate themselves to reduce the stresses of life. Or they may not be alone, but still feel as if they aren’t seen or understood, creating a sense of loneliness.

While loneliness is a universal human experience across the life span, it can feel particularly distressing to young adults. The compelling developmental task of this stage of life is the formation of close friendships and intimate relationships. And the pandemic has only increased young adults’ natural sensitivity to feeling lonely. A 2020 survey found that 61 percent of respondents aged 18 to 25 reported experiencing serious loneliness.

The Circadian System and Mood Fluctuations

It’s normal to experience mood fluctuations throughout the day. Like other bodily functions, such as appetite, digestion, healing, and sleep, mood is also tied to circadian rhythms. A 24-hour cycle has two natural periods of lower mood. And one of them is typically in the middle of the night. If you’re sleeping, you won’t notice it. But it’s a different story if you’re awake and alone with your thoughts.

There’s an evolutionary connection between bodily functions and exposure to daylight or darkness. For example, evening darkness stimulates the body’s production of sleep-inducing melatonin. Other parts of the body follow circadian rhythms as well. Cells in the liver, stomach, belly fat, and gut, for example, have “clock genes” that time the production of peptides that enhance wakefulness or promote sleep.

Our modern lifestyle is extremely disruptive to the body’s circadian rhythms. Most everyone is affected by increased exposure to artificial light at night, including light from computer screens, and reduced exposure to daytime sunlight. Night-shift workers and people who frequently travel across time zones are at increased risk of mood disorders. Moreover, researchers have identified circadian gene mutations that make some people even more vulnerable to environmentally induced mood changes.

Know the Facts

Researchers have noted seasonal peaks of suicidal behavior in spring and fall, when hours of daylight change most rapidly.

Sleep and Mood Disorders: A Vicious Cycle

Irregular sleeping patterns are associated with nearly all mood and anxiety disorders. Even healthy people are familiar with the effect that too little sleep can have on mood. It’s noticeable after just one night of poor sleep. The cause is not completely understood. However, researchers observe greater reactivity in the amygdala, the emotion center of the brain, during periods of sleep deprivation. At the same time, the inhibiting function of the rational prefrontal cortex is diminished, heightening emotional reactions.

But again, it works both ways. An underlying mood disorder can interfere with the ability to sleep normally. How does depression affect sleep? Electroencephalography (EEG) studies have shown that people with mood disorders may have different “sleep architecture” than healthy people. That is, they do not cycle through the normal series of four sleep stages required for truly restorative sleep. Instead, they spend more time in light sleep and wake up more often. The combination of sleep deprivation and the lower quality sleep often associated with mood disorders creates a vicious cycle that can cause someone to get sad at night. At other times of the day, activity and distractions mask their symptoms.

How to Stop Feeling Sad at Night

Whether or not you have a clear answer to the question “Why am I depressed at night?,” you can still make simple changes that will help relieve nighttime depression. 

Support your circadian rhythm

Light has dramatically different effects on the body, depending upon when it occurs relative to the body’s internal clock. Help your body regulate its natural processes by seeking out daylight exposure early in the day and dimming your indoor lighting in the evening. Avoid the light of computer and phone screens 30–60 minutes before bed. If you live in a location with short winter days, consider using a sunlamp to supplement your natural light exposure on dark mornings.

Improve your sleep hygiene

Make your sleeping space as dark as possible. Use blackout curtains and remove or cover other minor sources of light, such as digital clocks or remote control devices. Try to stick to a consistent schedule for going to bed and getting up, and minimize daytime sleep. Limit alcohol and caffeine. Alcohol makes depressive feelings worse and also interferes with restful sleep. Caffeine can throw off the body’s natural rhythms hours later.

Defuse rumination

Pay attention to the way you answer the question, “Why do I feel depressed at night?” How you think about your problems may have more impact on your mood than the problems themselves. Take a step back from your thoughts. Writing them down can help stop them from cycling through your mind and make it easier to recognize false beliefs or distortions. Self-compassion practices can help prevent your thoughts from torpedoing your mood.

Make lifestyle changes

What can you change in your life to address nighttime depression? Is your work or living situation diminishing your mental health? Shift work, a high-stress job, or roommates with different priorities may not be worth the damage they cause to your mental health. A trusted friend, mentor, or therapist can help you think through your options. 

When to Get Help for Nighttime Depression

If you’re experiencing depression at night, and lifestyle changes aren’t helping, don’t wait it out and hope it gets better on its own. If nighttime depression is occurring frequently, spreading into your daytime hours, and impacting your sleep quality and daily functioning, it’s essential to reach out for help today

At Newport Institute, our Admissions counselors can help assess your depression at night, and recommend the right level of care. Young adults in our program address the underlying causes of depression, such as trauma and attachment wounds, while gaining self-knowledge, self-care practices, and life skills. Our treatment helps young people to overcome isolation and find a sense of belonging and hope.

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Mental Health / August 2, 2022

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