Ups and downs

It is some time since I have written about mental health and after comments and questions from several people have decided that I should add something to this blog.

Things have been up and down, and I fear that is the best I can hope for. I noted some time ago that no matter how bad I feel, I will always feel better, eventually.

I have noticed two sorts of variation in mood over time.

The least surprising is variation over days. There are periods of many days, even weeks, when I feel depressed, or very depressed, and then I recover and feel normal or even better than normal for a while. A bad phase typically happens for two to four weeks once or twice year. The curious thing is that although I am very depressed for weeks, there is the odd day in which I feel fine.

Then there is the second sort of variation, which is that within a day. Broadly I have identified the following pattern. Immediately on waking (typically 7.15 – 7.30) I feel fine, as though I don’t yet know what I think or how I feel, or perhaps just haven’t had time to think about it yet. Then within ten or fifteen minutes I realise I feel very, very depressed. This period is usually the worst of the day. Generally it lifts a great deal around 11 am, and as lunch time approaches I can feel quite good. By mid-afternoon my mood can be quite reasonable. Then in early evening it’s though I collapse, and feel bad again, but usually now as bad as first thing. I then improve and by the time I go to bed might be really good. It amazes me that I can fall asleep very happy and wake up and within a few minutes extremely depressed.

Doubtless there are good biological reasons for this short-term variation, but I can find little research on the topic and I can only speculate that it has something to do with the interactions of several factors, including neurotransmitter levels, hormone levels, the sleep-wake cycle, and even blood sugar levels.

Of course when we talk about major swings of mood we must think about bipolar disorder. With bipolar, how order, each extreme lasts weeks, maybe longer, and I don’t experience mania (I think). I swing between depressed and normal. There is a phenomenon in bipolar disorder called rapid cycling, but even then we are talking about several swings a year; it’s defined as four distinct mood episodes a year. I can experience four distinct episodes a day, so I don’t think what I have is rapid cycling, at least as not normally conceived.
I have found this online:

“Borderline personality disorder (BPD): BPD is a personality disorder characterized by difficulties regulating emotions, as well as extreme mood swings. These mood episodes are easily triggered and can last from minutes to hours.”

A personality disorder as well! That’s all I need.)

My advice is to keep a diary of how you feel. I just score every day between 1 and 7. It enables me to test ideas like “I always feel bad n a Sunday” (I don’t, in fact).

Author: trevorharley

I am Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Dundee, Scotland. I am the author of several books, including the best selling texts "The psychology of language" (now in its fourth edition) and "Talking the talk: Language, psychology and science". I am currently also writing books on the science of consciousness and on the philosophy of science as applied to psychology (the latter with Richard Wilton), with both due to be published in 2017. Several other books are in the pipeline. My research interests are varied and I have published widely in some of the leading peer-reviewed psychology journals. My interests include language production, how we represent meaning, computer models of the mind, sleep and dreams, consciousness, mental illness, personality and motivation, the effects of brain damage on behaviour, and how the weather influences behaviour. I believe passionately that scientists, particularly those paid from the public purse, have a duty to explain what they do to that public. I also believe that we can reach a wide audience by the use of social media and new ways of explaining what we do. In my spare time I use stand-up comedy to talk about my research; a few years ago I appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe. One of the strangest things about being a comic is that I am often severely depressed (as well as anxious and obsessive). I have been on many types of medication, with varying degrees of success. When depressed I am always struck by how pointless everything seems: nothing seems worthwhile, and those things that I usually enjoy (playing the piano - even if not very well, looking at the natural world, reading, watching movies) no longer entice. My interest in things is a very accurate barometer of how well I am. I have realised that some mental illnesses, particularly severe mood disorders, are in part a loss of purpose and meaning in life. Becoming well involves recovering this purpose. I am also very keen to help remove the stigma that still surrounds mental illness. All of my life I have been puzzled by the question of what is the best way to spend my time. This blog is my search for answer to that question. In it I talk about my life, psychology, mental illness, purpose, living a better life, time management, existential despair, death (making me a death blogger I suppose), being creative, writing, and trying to write when depressed. I try and blog once a week or so; long silences usually mean I'm too depressed to write. For more information about me, see the home page of my website at I welcome comments on my blog, or if you prefer you can email me at You can follow me on Twitter at @trevharley.

4 thoughts on “Ups and downs”

  1. Trevor, me too … immediately on waking I feel fine, and within ten or fifteen minutes I feel depressed. I then improve and by the time I go to bed might be really good. Having said this, of late it has improved … no idea why.

    Like you I have looked for research but can find little mention of the topic, and [like you] have reached the conclusion it is a combination of a number of factors including hormone levels, neurotransmitters, social interaction, activity etc.

    This is a curious thing – are we in a minority group of two, or are there other group members?


    1. It’s interesting there is so little about it. I can’t believe we’re that special. Talking to other people it’s obvious that people’s moods can change very quickly and without apparent reason. I’ve noticed it first in the morning most commonly, but there are other occasions when I feel fine and then it is like a switch going.


      1. Yes, I do think moods change quickly for some people for no apparent reason – you are right, it is like a switch being turned on or off. It would interesting to look into this further, or is it something you already have on the back burner?


      2. If I had the resources I’d look at it, but it would need to be a large study. If we’re lucky someone reading this will pick up the baton. It is frustrating though because it makes interpreting one’s condition difficult, and therefore the best way of treating it isn’t clear. I think it shows how biological depression can be, though.


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