When asked if you’re “feeling blue,” someone’s likely wondering if you’re sad or unhappy, but is blue really associated with depression colors?

The study of how colors impact your mood and mental state is known as color psychology.

While this field of study is relatively new, people have used colors for centuries to describe how they were feeling —from flying blue flags during mourning to cultural traditions of wearing red to show celebration.

Many things can impact how a color makes you feel, including its hue, shade, and vibrancy.

When it comes to depression colors, gray and blue tend to be high on the list of those associated with low mood.

In a 2010 study using the Manchester Color Wheel, experts found gray was the color people pointed to when asked to reflect feelings of depression.

A 2016 study found those scoring highest on depressive scales selected gray as their color of choice.

Gray is often considered a neutral color — a color absent of emotion — in color psychology, which may account partially for why it’s likened to feelings of depression.

Depression is more than just sadness. It can be a sense of emptiness, apathy, hopelessness, and despair. Like the color gray, it can be dispassionate.

In addition to gray, blue is a color often aligned with low mood, particularly sadness, though the tone of blue may impact how you feel about it.

A 2017 study found that dark blue was the color most linked to depression.

In both the 2010 and 2017 studies, the vibrancy of color was just as important as the color itself. Cooler, darker tones were more closely associated with negative emotions compared to warmer, lighter tones.

Warmer, lighter tones of blue, for example, were identified as “favorite” colors and were associated with soothing effects.

The way colors impact your mood is an ongoing field of study.

Experts agree that the ability to see color is purposeful, meaning there’s a reason why the brain wants to know the colors of things around you.

For example, you know a banana is ready to eat when it turns from green to yellow. To your brain, a green banana says “stop” while the yellow banana is “go.”

Similarly, other colors in nature may have passed along important survival cues. Cold, dreary days may have been less active than warm, bright sunny days.

Red — the color of hot surfaces and blood — may have been a color of alarm or danger.

From this standpoint, it makes sense that each color you see can cause a physiological response in the body.

According to 2020 neural imaging research, every color creates distinct brain activity.

Different areas of the brain are stimulated based on the color you’re viewing, releasing hormones and sending signals to other parts of the body.

When it comes to depression colors such as gray and blue, these colors are often labeled as “cool” in tone and are thought to have a sedating effect on the brain.

Cultural influences

Colors may impact your brain in specific neurological ways, but how you perceive a color’s value can also be influenced by your culture and environment.

Black, for instance, is widely associated with death and mourning in western culture. It’s often a color that cloaks fictional villains in movies and on TV. Many people associate black with the dark, which can represent a terrifying fear of the unknown.

For these reasons and many others, black has achieved the label of being a negative color.

Is black a color?

Whether or not black is a color is a topic of debate, according to research from 2021. Some experts argue that black isn’t a color because it has no specific wavelength and instead represents the absorption of all wavelengths.

Others disagree, stating that black and white should be considered colors because color is a visual experience and isn’t synonymous with “light radiation.”

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Another example of cultural color influence can be seen with the color green.

Green is commonly used to represent sickness or illness. It’s been used in literature to describe unhelpful emotions such as jealousy, giving rise to the saying “green with envy.”

There’s currently no evidence that suggests specific colors can cause or trigger depression.

While some colors such as blue and gray may evoke negative feelings of low mood, depression is a clinical diagnosis characterized by patterns of long-standing distress and functional impairment.

The exact causes of depression are unknown, but trauma, chronic stress, genetics, physical illness, and medications have been identified as possible factors.

Emotions can influence your senses.

For example, if you’re in a state of heightened fear, you may be more likely to see alarming shadows or suspicious shapes where there are none.

If depression is a persistent emotional state, it’s natural to wonder if it can influence visual perception.

In a 2010 study, 40 people with a diagnosis of major depression were found to have significant decreases in retinal sensitivity, even if they were taking medications to treat their symptoms.

Diminished retinal sensitivity could affect how well you perceive the vibrancy of colors, making things appear duller than they really are.

Similar findings were noted in a 2014 study investigating light sensitivity in people living with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a depressive condition.

The results showed that those experiencing SAD had reduced retinal sensitivity to light year round.

Because colors are a reflection of different light wavelengths, it’s possible that diminished light sensitivity in depressive conditions could impact color perception.

Light and depression

The same authors of the 2014 study noted an important insight about light and depression in a 2021 follow-up research.

While there’s no known link between specific colors and depressive triggers, the 2021 study suggests that the diminished capacity to perceive light may be an underlying cause of SAD.

SAD is a depressive disorder directly impacted by sunlight and the seasonal day-night cycle.

Gray and blue are often considered depressive colors that may contribute to feelings of low mood.

While these colors can be associated with negative feelings, there’s no evidence to suggest that viewing a specific color can trigger a depressive episode.

Some depressive conditions such as seasonal affective disorder may be affected by how efficiently your eyes process light — the origin of color.

If you’re experiencing depression and need immediate assistance, you can reach someone 24/7 by dialing 988.

You can also speak to a trained mental health representative by calling the SAMHSA National Helpline at 800-662-4357.