Depression can have a variety of effects on our everyday life — including how we process and perceive colors.
Having depression, or experiencing feelings of anxiety or sadness, may change our perception of colors. It can make us feel like we’re living in the black and white beginning of the movie “The Wizard of Oz” instead of the vibrant technicolor of the land somewhere over the rainbow.
Depression is a serious mental health condition that can lead to feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or disinterest in usual activities. It can manifest in a variety of ways and can cause both mental and physical symptoms.
So, if you’re experiencing a little more Kansas and a lot less Oz, you’re not alone.
An altered perception of color is just one of the physical symptoms of depression.
But how exactly does the way we feel affect how we perceive colors? To find the answers, let’s look at what color perception is and how we often tie colors to our different emotions.
Color perception is the way our eyes process and perceive color. It includes the way our retinas respond to contrasting colors to form a perception of the colors we’re seeing.
Physical defects that affect this process can lead to conditions such as color blindness.
However, this research isn’t conclusive and was later retracted due to errors in study findings. More research is needed to confirm whether our emotions can affect how we see color.
While what we see and how we feel are often studied separately, research is discovering more about how our mood can color the way we see the world.
Those with depression may experience more muted or less vibrant hues than folks considered neurotypical. But is there an actual scientific reason behind this?
According to a 2010 study, there is. In the study, 40 patients with depression and 40 patients without were evaluated to see if there was a difference in how each group physically perceived color. Of those with depression, 20 were taking antidepressant medications at the time the study was conducted, while the remaining 20 were not.
Using a technique called pattern electroretinogram (PERG), researchers were able to measure how each participant was able to physically perceive contrast. The study found that those with depression had a significantly lower retinal response, which led to being unable to accurately see black and white contrasts. This affected patients who were taking medications as well as those who weren’t.
Findings also revealed that the severity of depression impacted how much color contrast a patient was able to see. The greater a patient experienced depression, the less sensitive they were to contrast between colors.
A widely cited 2015 study also suggests that feelings of sadness can affect our ability to accurately identify colors on the blue-yellow axis. However, the researchers later retracted their study, sharing that while they still stood by their findings, there were errors in the methods used.
Another way in which mood and depression have been linked to color is by using the Manchester Color Wheel — a simple tool that shows a series of different colors and shades. A
Participants in the study were asked to identify what colors they were drawn to during a series of questions. Researchers found that bright, yellow hues were most associated with more positive moods, while gray shades were linked to feelings of depression or anxiety.
While more research is still needed, there does seem to be a link between how we feel and how we perceive colors.
Sometimes we use colors to give a sense of how we’re feeling. Warmer tones — particularly yellows and oranges — are generally considered to be “happier” colors, while cooler hues are more often linked to feelings of sadness or distress.
Darker blues are most often associated with anxiety and depression, hence the common term “feeling blue.”
On the flip side, lighter shades of blue are usually considered to be relaxing, and are often used to treat depression during color therapy sessions.
Color therapy (aka chromotherapy) is an alternative treatment that uses color and colored light as treatment for certain mental and physical health conditions, including depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, sleep disorders, and some cancers.
Color therapists use the unique wavelengths and frequencies of colors to spur a response in their patients. Different colors can bring about different responses. Blue is often the most commonly used color to treat depression.
More studies are needed to fully understand and support the effectiveness of color therapy, but current research is promising. One 2015 study found that color therapy had a positive effect on depression, stress, high blood pressure, and certain cancers and skin conditions.
Another more recent study, which focused on using color therapy to treat anxiety, also had positive results.
Colors are often associated with how or what we’re feeling. We may think of bright, warm colors during happy times and darker, cooler tones when we’re feeling low.
When you’re living with depression, however, it can feel like colors in general look less vibrant or are even difficult to distinguish from one another.
Research suggests that there may be biological reasons for colors seeming different when you’re experiencing depression. Depression may affect your vision by causing a slower retinal response, making it difficult to accurately see contrasting colors or shades.
There are many options available for managing your depression and regaining a full-color spectrum outlook. You may want to consider:
- seeking support of a mental health professional: Research shows that antidepressant therapy may help ease the symptoms of depression, including how it may be affecting your retinal response. A mental healthcare professional can work with you to put together a plan of treatment for your specific needs.
- engaging in color therapy: A color therapist delivers this alternative treatment option, geared toward igniting responses based on colors or colored lights.
- speaking with a medical doctor: If you’re unsure whether your perception of color is due to depression or something else, you may want to consider talking to a healthcare professional or optometrist. They can help determine if another underlying cause may be the reason your vision is picking up color differently.