It’s normal to feel down some days but if you’re going through a low patch, what can you do to change things – and when do you need to seek help?
Written by Helen Foster on March 19, 2019
Reviewed by Dr Nihara Krause on March 27, 2019
We all have off-days, when we can’t motivate ourselves to work or seeing friends feels like too much – and that’s totally fine. But if you’ve been feeling low for a while, there could be something else at play.
What is low mood?
Experiencing ups and downs in your mood is perfectly normal but understanding what’s behind them is really helpful, as your mood can go on to influence your thoughts and behaviours. If you’re in the middle of a low mood, you might feel:1
What causes low mood?
A low mood can be the result of short-term, transient triggers such as hunger, lack of sleep or feeling premenstrual, while longer term causes could be insomnia, high stress levels, major life changes or physical causes such as thyroid issues.2-5 But sometimes low mood can be a sign that you need to stop putting a brave face on things and change your life in some way.6
How does low mood differ from depression?
One of the symptoms of depression is low mood but rather than feeling down for a few days, you feel this way for a few weeks or months at a time. Low mood tends to improve once the trigger has been resolved – you reduce your stress levels or get a good night’s sleep, for example.7 But if your low mood continues, and you also experience some of the symptoms below, it could be depression.
Some symptoms of depression include:8
- feeling hopeless
- losing interest in the things you used to enjoy
- wanting to sleep all day
- physical symptoms such as lack of appetite
If this sounds like what you’re going through, talk to your GP or find online support from a network like Elefriends by Mind to work out the best way to move forward. You should also see your doctor if you have other symptoms like weight gain or breathlessness, as low mood can be linked to some health issues such as an underactive thyroid.9
However, most of the time a bad mood is simply the result of a bad day – and you can manage it on your own.
How to change your mood
First of all, it’s OK to feel sad, angry or selfish now and again. These emotions are part and parcel of life – pretending you’re fine when you’re feeling fed up is not necessary. But if you are fed up of feeling fed up, there are several things you can do to lift a low mood.
Eat more vegetables
This may sound like advice from your mother, but when a trial by New Zealand’s University of Otago investigated the link between mood and fruit and veg intake, they found people were happier the day after they’d eaten more fresh fruits and veggies.10 The magic number seems to be seven to eight portions, but the researchers don’t know exactly how or why getting your greens has this effect.
Consider some extra vitamins
The B-vitamins are associated with mood, and a 2013 study by the University of Miami discovered that taking a vitamin B-complex could reduce symptoms of low mood and anxiety in 60 people with depression.11 You could also consider upping your vitamin D levels, as some research shows that vitamin D is linked to serotonin production, the ‘happy hormone’ in the brain.12 Talk to your doctor or a dietitian before taking supplements to check for relevant vitamin or mineral deficiencies.
Get outside more often
Getting some daylight could re-boot your mood. According to a 2014 trial at America’s Cornell University, nurses who worked in wards with more daylight reported better moods.13 This could be because we produce vitamin D in response to sunlight that, in turn, may impact on the creation of serotonin.14 Even better, head to a local park or somewhere you can be close to nature – research shows that exposure to natural environments could help reverse a low mood.15
Tell yourself it’s going to be a good day
If you wake up believing it’s going to be a bad day – it will be, reports a 2018 study by Pennsylvania State University. Researchers found that anticipating a stressful day can change your brain’s responses, meaning you’re more likely to make mistakes during the day and fulfil your doom-laden prediction!16
You can also ‘fake it till you make it’. Experts know that smiling can make us feel happy but early Dutch research shows that suppressing your emotions – by not expressing them on your face, for example – means they can ‘leak out’ elsewhere, leading to a low mood.17
Get your bubbles on
If all that fails to boost your mood, soak in a nice, long bath. According to a 2018 Japanese study that compared the mood-boosting effects of baths and showers, both could cheer you up but those who had a bath reported lower stress levels and were more likely to smile at themselves in the mirror afterwards.18 Who knew that ‘Aahhh….’ could lead to ‘Cheese!’?
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies.
1. NHS Inform. Low mood and depression
2. Selvi Y, et al. The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Dissociation and Profiles of Mood, and Its Association with Biochemical Changes
3. Ottley C. Food and mood
4. Mills H, Reiss N, Dombeck M. Mentalhelp.net. Mental And Emotional Impact Of Stress
5. Stephanie Watson. Healthline. How to Deal with Premenstrual Mood Swings
6. Victoria State Government. Monitoring your mood
7. NHS. Low mood and depression
8. NHS. Clinical depression
9. Harvard Mental Health Letter. When depression starts in the neck
10. White BA, Horwath C, Conner TS. Many apples a day keep the blues away – Daily experiences of negative and positive affect and food consumption in young adults
11. Lewis JE, et al. The effect of methylated vitamin B complex on depressive and anxiety symptoms and quality of life in adults with depression
12. Lambert GW, et al. Effect of sunlight and season on serotonin turnover in the brain
13. Zadeh RS, et al. The impact of windows and daylight on acute-care nurses’ physiological, psychological, and behavioral health
14. Sansone RA, Sansone LA. Sunshine, Serotonin, and Skin: A Partial Explanation for Seasonal Patterns in Psychopathology?
15. Beaute FW, de Kort YAW. Natural resistance: Exposure to nature and self-regulation, mood, and physiology after ego-depletion
16. Katie Bohn. Penn State News. Expecting a stressful day may lower cognitive abilities throughout the day
17. Melinda Wenner. Scientific American. Smile! It Could Make You Happier
18. Goto Y, et al. Physical and Mental Effects of Bathing: A Randomized Intervention Study