Understanding low mood

What is low mood?

Feeling low from time to time is a part of life, and we’ve all experienced periods of sadness, upset, and disappointment at some point in our lives. These feelings usually pass quite quickly, even over a few days or a couple of weeks, and we get back to being ourselves. Low mood can feel uncomfortable and distressing, but there are things we can all do to recover and return to our usual routines.

Is low mood the same as depression?

While low mood is upsetting, it is much less severe and disruptive than depression. Low mood usually fades within two weeks of onset, and you start to feel back on top of things. However, if you have felt very low on a daily basis for more than two weeks, and you feel as if your day-to-day life is being badly affected, your GP can offer you guidance and support.

Unlike some forms of depression, transient low mood is not medicated, although there are plenty of self-care practices that can lift your mood and help you to cope.

What causes low mood?

Not everyone will be able to determine the cause of their low mood, while others will have a clear sense of what’s causing them to feel distressed. It’s also useful to keep in mind that there is often more than one factor in developing low mood.

There are many causes of low mood but here are some of the more common ones:

  • The diagnosis of an illness in ourselves or someone we care about
  • Interpersonal relationship problems
  • Loss
  • Debt or other money worries
  • Housing problems
  • Being bullied
  • Stress at home or work
  • Poor diet, overuse of alcohol, or use of recreational drugs
  • Short-term hormonal changes such as PMT
  • Environmental influences such as the weather
  • Caring responsibilities
  • Concerns about your children
  • Overcommitting yourself and feeling trapped by your obligations
  • Comparing yourself to other people and feeling like you don’t measure up
  • Experiencing a personal or work-related trauma.

What are the symptoms of low mood?

Feeling low is subjective, and we’re all different, but many people who have experienced low mood describe some disruption to their daily life. They may feel as if things will never improve, or they may feel angry that life isn’t working out the way they want it to. Other indicators that someone may be experiencing low mood can include:

  • Feeling sad and possibly tearful
  • Feeling unmotivated and lethargic
  • ’Analysis paralysis’ – not knowing what to do next or where to start
  • Feeling anxious about the future
  • Low self-esteem and a lack of confidence
  • Feeling frustrated, snappy or easily aggravated
  • Disruptions to sleep (oversleeping, or waking often in the night)
  • Eating more than usual – or less
  • Self-medicating with alcohol, tobacco or drugs
  • Not wanting to socialise
  • Not being able to focus or concentrate as you usually can
  • Thinking about situations in an unusually pessimistic way
  • Wondering if you’ll ever feel better again
  • Feeling isolated and uncared for.

How is low mood treated?

In most cases, low mood will pass within a couple of weeks – and in some cases, even a couple of days – of its own accord. However, it’s important to ensure that you’re taking care of yourself so that you can fully recover and get back to enjoying life. If symptoms become severe or persistent, you should see your doctor to discuss whether there might be a more serious issue (such as depression) that might need treatment.

Identifying the reasons for feeling low can be really helpful. You might want to talk through things with a friend or family member, and/or write down a list of things you’re struggling with. When you become aware of what’s at the root of your low mood you can start to take steps to deal with the core causes.

Tips for lifting low mood

  • Get some exercise every day – even a brief walk on your lunch break can lift your mood (link to articles)
  • Cut back on alcohol 
  • Eat as healthily as possible
  • Get good quality sleep
  • Reduce your caffeine and sugar intake
  • Talk to a friend or family member about your feelings
  • Get outside in nature
  • Take a break from social media if it’s a negative force in your life
  • Spend time on a hobby or other interest that you enjoy
  • Create a plan for dealing with any stressors that might be impacting on your mood, such as debt, housing problems, stress at work, or interpersonal relationship problems
  • Take time out for yourself – especially if you’re feeling low due to the demands of other people
  • Keep a mood journal. 

Download mood journal (0.13mb)

What we can learn from feeling low

Feeling low often tells us that something needs adjusting in our lives, whether it’s a practical issue, or one that is more emotional in nature. It’s true that part of normal human experience is feeling disappointed, sad, or dissatisfied from time to time – just as we all feel in control, content, and happy at others – it’s a case of checks and balances, and feeling low doesn’t mean that you have depression. It’s okay to not feel okay, and in fact, periods of feeling low and not quite yourself can help you to build your resilience and know what to do next time you’re faced with this very normal experience.

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