What Is Diurnal Variation in Mood?

How to Cope With Morning Depression

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

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Diurnal variation in mood is a symptom of depression characterized by worse mood and other depression symptoms in the morning that improves later in the day.

While technically not a separate diagnosis from clinical depression, diurnal mood variation is sometimes referred to as “morning depression.” Diurnal mood variation doesn't appear as a unique entry in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), though it's considered a hallmark symptom of severe clinical depression (specifically the melancholic subtype). 

Overview of Diurnal Variation in Mood

For those who have mild depression and other mood disorders, it's not uncommon to experience symptoms at night. A person may have more energy and a better mood earlier in the day, with symptoms of depression becoming worse at night.

People who experience diurnal mood variation typically feel the symptoms of melancholic depression most intensely in the morning and notice a gradual improvement as the day goes on.

People who are depressed may feel there is no clear reason for the mood changes they experience at certain times of the day. Unlike people who do not have depression, they may feel that they are unable to control the changes. 

Studies have shown that people who don’t have depression may also experience similar fluctuations in mood. However, they usually report these fluctuations are in response to certain situations or influences.

While there are some similarities, diurnal mood variation differs from mood changes that occur with the change of seasons. It's also not the same as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is typically influenced by the time of year rather than the time of day. 

Symptoms of Diurnal Variation in Mood

People who have depression with diurnal mood variation have a low mood and feel that their depression symptoms are at their worst in the morning, but they seem to get better throughout the day. In addition to characteristic clinical depression symptoms like profound sadness and low mood, people with diurnal mood variation may also:

  • Be irritable or easily frustrated
  • Feel extremely tired and lethargic upon waking, creating difficulty completing daily tasks or a morning routine (such as showering, dressing, making breakfast)
  • Have little to no enthusiasm or interest in the day ahead (even if pleasurable activities are planned)
  • Have problems focusing and poor concentration
  • Have trouble waking up or getting out of bed
  • Sleep longer than normal (known as hypersomnia)

Causes of Diurnal Variation in Mood

As with the causes of clinical depression, the driving force behind diurnal mood variation isn't completely understood. One theory is that the variations occur in response to circadian rhythms. Your circadian rhythm is the natural pattern of variations in wakefulness, body temperature, blood pressure, and hormone levels that your body goes through during a 24-hour day.

Even people who don't have a mood disorder can experience sleep trouble based on changes in their circadian rhythm. Therefore, it makes sense that these irregularities could contribute to symptoms of depression. 

Research has also found that diurnal variation in mood is associated with an evening chronotype. Chronotype refers to a person's natural tendency to sleep and wake at certain times.

Researchers know that people who have depression are especially vulnerable to irregularities in their internal clock and sleep patterns. A person’s mood can be affected even when they knowingly alter their sleep patterns, such as by staying up later or rising earlier to accommodate work or social activities. 

Mood swings may be instigated by changes to external light and dark cues, such as the timing of sunrise and sunset. These factors can also influence other depressive disorders such as SAD. But research also suggests that making changes to try to stabilize relationships between sleep, wakefulness, eating, exercise, meal times, and the timing of medication may decrease the impact of diurnal mood variation.

Diagnosis of Diurnal Variation in Mood

Diurnal mood variation doesn’t have its own specific diagnostic criteria. People who experience it are usually diagnosed with major depression or a similar condition.

For example, some people with bipolar disorder experience similar symptoms and may be misdiagnosed with unipolar depression. A professional assessment is vital to making the distinction, as these conditions require different treatments. 

While your doctor or psychiatrist is evaluating you for depression or another mental health disorder, they will often ask questions about your sleep habits, as well as how your mood changes throughout the day. For example, they may ask if you are sleeping more or less than usual, how well you are sleeping, and if you feel better in the morning than in the afternoon or evening.

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Treatment for Diurnal Variation in Mood

If you experience diurnal mood variation, start by talking to your doctor or mental health professional about your options for treating the specific type of depression you have, including different forms of psychotherapy, medications, or a combination of interventions. 

Light Therapy

It’s unclear if depression causes circadian rhythm disturbances or if disruption of one’s circadian rhythm contributes to depression. In either case, phototherapy may also help people with morning depression.

Also known as light therapy or lightbox therapy, phototherapy involves shining full-spectrum bright light that mimics natural outdoor light on your face while sitting the appropriate distance away from the light box. During phototherapy, you will either sit next to a lightbox or be fitted with visor designed to expose your eyes to artificial light that mimics natural daylight.

Light therapy is used to treat an array of medical and mental health conditions. These include bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), and sleep disorders like insomnia.

Medications & Supplements 

There are several different classes of antidepressant medications that can be prescribed for depression. Research has suggested that some medications may be more effective at addressing morning depression than others.

Melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate your body's circadian rhythm. Some people find taking a melatonin supplement improves their sleep patterns and may help them cope with symptoms of morning depression.

Research has suggested that a specific atypical antidepressant called agomelatine, a synthetic form of melatonin, could be an effective treatment for depression with diurnal mood variation. However, as of 2019 agomelatine is not available in the United States. The drug is available in the United Kingdom where it is sold under the brand name Valdoxian.

If you or a loved one are struggling with diurnal mood or morning depression, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Coping With Diurnal Variation in Mood

If you experience morning depression, you may also find it helpful to try making some lifestyle changes to see if your symptoms improve, such as:

  • Avoid stimulants: Don’t drink alcohol or caffeine-containing coffee, tea, or hot chocolate too close to bedtime. Tobacco can also contribute to poor sleep quality—another reason to try to quit smoking.  
  • Curate a sleep space: Make your bedroom conducive to rest and relaxation. Keep it quiet, cool, and dark. Don't do any activities in your bed other than sleep or have sex. Your brain associates your bed with what you do there. If you watch TV, do work on your laptop, or play games on your phone in bed, it becomes associated with these activities as well. 
  • Dim the lights: The light from your computer, TV, and phone screen can trick your brain into thinking it's morning, making it more difficult to fall and stay asleep. Turn off screens at least one hour before you head to bed.
  • Don't take naps: If you can’t do without, try to keep naps short. Avoid taking one late in the day, as it may affect your sleep at night.
  • Get physical: Regular exercise helps regulate mood and can improve your sleep, but timing is key. A good workout can be stimulating, so some people prefer exercising in the morning. If you’re not an early riser or your schedule only leaves time for the gym later in the day, just try to wrap up your workout at least four hours before it’s time to tuck in.
  • Optimize your mental energy: If you have any flexibility in your schedule, try to avoid making appointments, taking meetings, or working on big projects earlier in the day. Studies have even suggested going to therapy later in the day (when you may feel more mentally up for a session) can be beneficial. 
  • Stick to a sleep schedule: Go to bed at the same time each evening and wake up at the same time each morning. 

A Word From Verywell

If you have depression, you may notice your symptoms seem worse at certain times of the day. While diurnal mood variation or morning depression isn't a diagnosis in and of itself, it can be a symptom of major depression (specifically melancholic depression).

It’s important that you talk to your doctor or a mental health professional if you recognize depression symptoms and they are impacting your daily life. Certain medications, therapies, and lifestyle changes may be able to help you cope with the fluctuations in your mood throughout the day. Together with your doctor, you can find what works best for you.

14 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Nancy Schimelpfening
Nancy Schimelpfening, MS is the administrator for the non-profit depression support group Depression Sanctuary. Nancy has a lifetime of experience with depression, experiencing firsthand how devastating this illness can be.