Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 11/1/2022
Depression can be situational, time-specific and even seasonal, and if you or a loved one has suffered from seasonal depression, you already know that some triggers can exacerbate depressive disorders that are based on clocks and calendars. But can waking up before noon really increase your exposure to depression triggers? Is morning depression a thing?
Like reading bad headlines on your phone before you get out of bed, the news on morning depression isn’t particularly energizing. But rather than roll over and drift back to sleep, you might consider reading on to learn more about this daybreak depressive disorder. Specifically, you might want to read the part about how to stop it.
Spoiler alert: morning depression isn’t something that disappears when you roll over from 11:59 a.m. to noon, and you can’t avoid it by working a night shift.
There are some strategies to handle the condition known as morning depression, though, and you can utilize them with practice.
Let’s start with what is probably your most pressing question: is this even real?
The answer is straightforwardly yes — only, it goes by a different, more technical name: “diurnal variation.”
Diurnal mood variation is one of the depressive symptoms of the 24-hour period: it’s depression based on the rise and fall of the sun and moon, and the concept of what we know as daytime.
Studies have found that major depression (also known as clinical depression) does indeed fluctuate throughout the day, and that these fluctuations can affect the morning just as much as the evening, depending on the person.
In reality, diurnal variations in depression can hit any time of the day: morning, afternoon or evening. All three can occur during a single depressive episode, in some cases.
When these variations happen, the result can be major mood swings timed to particular periods of the day, the same way that seasonal depression or seasonal affective disorder can be pegged to particular times of the year.
And just like seasonal depression, we may incorrectly assume that certain times are worse than others.
A person might fairly assume that the cold, desolate and isolating months of winter are worse for mild to severe depression, but some folks do experience depression symptoms in the summer months.
Likewise, you might assume that it’s the after-dark hours that are most vulnerable for daily depression when, in reality, the bright, hopeful morning time is just as vulnerable a time for some patients with depression.
Scientists don’t fully understand the causes of depression, but they do have some theories about why diurnal variation and morning depression happen.
One of these theories is tied up in the concept of the circadian rhythm, or the way your body times and processes sleep based on a 24-hour period of time.
Experts have determined that just about everything we can measure with the human body changes in a 24-hour day: hormone levels, body temperature, heart rate and even some elements of cognitive processing.
It turns out that mood variations are also something that can be measured with a circadian rhythm — non-depressed people experience changes throughout the day, much like people with clinical depression.
The low mood period of the day tends to overlap with the period when body temperate is the lowest.
Interestingly, this is where your sleep cycle comes into play. It’s been theorized that because your core temperature should be lowest when you’re fast asleep, your mood should also be the most depressed when you’re unconscious.
But if your sleep patterns are altered or unpredictable, or if you take irregular naps, it can throw off both your core body temperature during sleep, as well as — you guessed it — your mood.
Sleep deprivation has a profound effect on mood generally. Depressed patients who experienced it in one study were more likely to have their moods improve or peak in the evening.
Oddly, patients who had already experienced diurnal variation were more tolerant of sleep deprivation than those who hadn’t.
We’re still a ways out from figuring out morning depression, but information like this provides the medical research community with a basis for beginning to better tailor treatment to individuals who experience morning depression.
Regardless of how and when your depression appears, you can expect some similarities. Morning depression patients and others alike can experience the same symptoms of depression, which include:
Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
Sleep disturbances like insomnia
Fatigue and lack of energy
Changes in weight and appetite
Difficulty concentrating and changes in attention
The key difference is the schedule and pacing of these feelings.
A person with morning depression feels the worst either late at night or in the early morning (or both). Their mood tends to improve as the night draws closer, so at dusk, they begin feeling the best of the day, their symptoms improve and they’re more engaged and interested in activities.
That means if you tend to sleep in, skip breakfast, feel deeper negative emotions in the morning or feel noticeably more upbeat in the evenings, you may have a diurnal variation.
A big question you may have right now is whether your night owl tendencies are actually the result of patterns in your depression.
While we can’t answer that for you individually, we can say that if these symptoms feel familiar and your mood patterns fit the ones we’ve outlined above, it’s a good idea to bring these concerns to a mental health professional for their support and guidance.
In the meantime, you might also want to consider some general tips for reducing the symptoms of morning depression.
There are many ways to take on depression, even when your eyes first open in the morning.
Depression can be altered with lifestyle changes — just cutting down on unhealthy foods, getting some exercise and taking care of your physical health can have a profound impact on your mental health, as well.
Want to see what’s good for your mind and body? Check out our guide to foods that fight depression.
You might also look into therapy and medication with the help of a healthcare provider.
Forms of therapy like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors have proven safe and effective when employed correctly as part of a tailored depression management plan.
And as for the morning depression-specific treatments, you might want to take a hard look at your daily habits — specifically, look at your “synchronization” as an area where improvement could help.
Light therapy, which is often used to help people with seasonal mood disorders, can also help people with morning depression if done first thing in the morning.
But you don’t need a fancy lightbox to synchronize your internal clock.
Simply keeping to meal times, enforcing bed times for yourself and generally protecting your own circadian rhythm from major interference can potentially have a positive impact on your mental health.
And there may be other ways to see benefits. But for those, you need to talk to a professional.
Whether your depression rears its head in the morning, afternoon or at precisely 11:11 p.m. for some reason, it doesn’t really matter. Depression is depression.
Treating depression may vary given your unique circumstances, but that custom treatment plan for depression that arises out of your personal conflict is going to have the same origin as everyone else’s: it’s going to come from a qualified healthcare professional.
A healthcare professional is uniquely trained and prepared to help you navigate the complicated world of mental health management. They’re the one who helps you triangulate the best medication, lock in the best type of therapy, and add on lifestyle modifications to boost your benefits.
If you’re ready to start working on your depression, your first chat should be with a mental health professional.
You can do that with us, by the way. Our online therapy platform is a great place to to get access to the help you need, conveniently and safely (oh, and you might also want to check out our mental health resources for more educational materials, as well as access to medication).
Don’t let another day dawn without getting some help. There’s no need to wake up on the wrong side of the bed again.