How Light Therapy Can Help SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)
In the cold, dark months of winter many of us feel a little sluggish and a little blue. The change in sunlight certainly affects most people to some degree, but for some people the decrease in sunlight hours marks the start of a yearly depression, called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), complete with excessive fatigue and an increase in feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness.
People sometimes try to “tough it out” because when springtime rolls around and the sun shines more, they know they will start to feel better. Yet, especially in northern climates, winter is a long, long season, and it makes sense to explore treatment options available.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is Real
While it’s not a separate disorder, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a form of major depression that is clinically diagnosable by medical professionals.
SAD is sometimes confused with the “winter blues” which is not a medical condition, but has similar symptoms of melancholy and lethargy. Seasonal Affective Disorder is more persistent, though, with more severe symptoms that can make it hard to get out of bed in the morning and function.
Treatment Options for Seasonal Affective Disorder
As with other forms of depression, doctors may prescribe one of these treatment options for SAD:
- psychotherapy (specifically cognitive behavioral therapy)
- light therapy
Another treatment option is light therapy, or using a light box specifically designed for SAD symptoms. Light therapy can be used in conjunction with other treatment options or on its own.
(NOTE: Doctors may use caution in prescribing light therapy for people with a diagnosis of SAD and bipolar disorder as it may cause manic symptoms to worsen. Newer research suggests, however, that light therapy can benefit people with bipolar disorder.)
How Light Therapy Works
One of the hallmarks of SAD is that the symptoms tend to appear at the same time each year. That’s because one of the triggers for SAD is the being exposed to a lower level of sunlight throughout the day. The change in sunlight effects our circadian rhythms and can cause a decrease in serotonin production as well as reduced Vitamin D levels, both of which have been linked to depression.
A light box mimics the signals we usually get from the sun and triggers the release of chemicals, including serotonin, that can lift our mood. Sitting in front of one of these devices for roughly 30 minutes each day has been shown to be effective in 70% of people with SAD symptoms.
The recommendations for using a light box include:
- Using the box in the morning hours. Otherwise the chemicals triggered can interfere with sleep patterns.
- Positioning the light box correctly. Observe the manufacturer’s recommended distance and height measurements.
Also, you want to observe these cautions for using light boxes:
- Consult with your doctor before starting light therapy. Your doctor may want to begin slowly and monitor changes as they occur.
- Do NOT substitute light therapy boxes that are designed to treat skin conditions and these contain unfiltered UV rays and can damage your eyes.
- If you have eye conditions such as glaucoma, cataracts or diabetes, check with your eye doctor before using light therapy.
Other Ways to Help SAD Symptoms
There are other recommendations for ways to alleviate the symptoms of SAD.
- Catch Some Rays Just as light therapy helps to alleviate the symptoms of SAD, getting exposure to natural sunlight helps improve mood.
- Get Exercise Physical activity triggers the release of endorphins, widely known as “feel good” hormones which are helpful in offsetting lethargy and promote a sense of well-being.
- Be Social Getting together with friends and having fun acts likes a vaccine against feelings of loneliness and hopelessness, so scheduling time for social activity is important during the winter months.
- Lend a Helping Hand There is nothing like feeling we have something to contribute to others to increase our sense of worth. People who volunteer regularly experience numerous health benefits such as lowered blood pressure and decreased depression.
While these recommendations fall into the category of general self-care, they can be tricky to implement. If the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are knocking you down, it can be hard to make yourself do those things. When you are feeling depressed, it’s not easy to reach out to friends or to get yourself outside for a walk.
On the other hand, it doesn’t take a great deal of effort to plug the light box in and make yourself sit down in front of it. If you are among the 70% of people for whom the therapy works, it will then be easier to take part in other self-care options that support your mental and physical health.
“Beat the Winter Blues,” newsinhealth.nih.gov, January 2013
Mayo Clinic Staff, “Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatment: Choosing a Light Therapy Box,” mayoclinic.org, March 2016
Melrose, Sherri, “Seasonal Affective Disorder: An Overview of Assessment and Treatment Approaches,” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov November 2015