Does light therapy help seasonal depression?

I know what you’re thinking:

Light therapy? You expect me to believe that sitting under a *special lamp* will make me less depressed?

Surprisingly, it just might. Read on to find out how.

What’s seasonal depression?

Seasonal depression, seasonal affective disorder, and SAD all refer to the same thing. In the DSM-V, it’s listed as Major Depressive Disorder with seasonal pattern.

No matter how you label it, seasonal depression is ROUGH.

Do you notice a change in yourself when the world transitions to winter?

Do you sleep more?

Go out less?

Feel down or worthless?

Put on weight?

Feel exhausted all the time?

Feel restlessness or like you’re moving in slow motion?

If you answered “yes” to most of those questions, you may have seasonal depression.

The only way to know for sure is to be diagnosed by a mental health professional. See a therapist and/or psychiatrist for an accurate diagnosis.

What causes seasonal depression?

In short, we don’t know.

Some people think that when the time changes and the days become shorter, there’s a shift in our circadian rhythms. Our internal clock is suddenly off balance, which causes a domino effect. Our sleep schedule is off, which impacts our energy, which impacts our mood, and so on.

Other people blame seasonal depression on the decrease in Vitamin D, typically provided by the sun.

Still others believe decreased sunlight decreases our serotonin levels.

If any of these hypotheses are true, light therapy seems like an obvious solution.

What’s light therapy?

Light therapy (phototherapy, if you’re fancy) is consistently spending time under a specialized lamp designed to simulate sunlight.

I know, I know. It sounds like something a fourth grader invented for a science fair project.

But the research is pretty compelling.

What does the research show?

One early study was done in 1998 by Eastman et. al. The researchers concluded that 20 minutes of light treatment per morning improved mood in 61% of the study participants. That’s a pretty high statistical significance!

A 2009 study by Virk et. al. actually indicated an immediate, small improvement in mood after just one, 20-minute light session.

There are many other studies you’re welcome to look up. The bottom line is, light therapy is evidence-based!

With all of that said…

Research indicates light therapy is effective, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right for everyone. Every person is different.

In some rare instances, light therapy has been linked to onset of manic episodes and suicidal ideation.

It’s important to consult a professional before starting light treatment.

Light Therapy Tips

It’s not just any old light.

You can’t shine a flashlight in your face and call it light therapy (as convenient as that sounds).

You have to have a specific type of light, often called a sun lamp or happy light. The Mayo Clinic recommends purchasing a light therapy box that filters out ultraviolet (UV) rays.

You can find many ‘happy lights’ for sale on Amazon. Do your research and read reviews before purchasing.

Don’t look directly.

Don’t look directly into the light; this could hurt your vision.

Just turn the light on while you eat breakfast, check e-mails, or do whatever you usually do in the morning.

Timing matters.

Light therapy is MOST effective in the morning.

You’ll want to leave your light box on for 20-40 minutes. Less than 20 minutes may not be enough. Over 40 minutes probably won’t hurt, but you won’t get any additional benefit, either.

Light therapy alternatives

There are other treatments for seasonal depression. Often, they work well together!

Psychotherapy

One popular alternative to light therapy is good, old-fashioned psychotherapy.

A mental health therapist can help you identify ways to cope. These might include more exercise, better sleep hygiene, and tools for motivation.

Therapy can help folks process factors that make depression worse. If the holidays bring about a lot of stress or grief, talking to a therapist about it can help.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a popular therapy treatment that many therapists provide. CBT helps folks look at how their thoughts, feelings and behaviors are impacting their mental health.

CBT is also indicated for seasonal depression. A study by Rohan et. al. indicated that CBT and light therapy had equally effective outcomes for seasonal affective disorder.

Psychiatric medications

Anti-depressant medications often help alleviate symptoms of SAD. Wellbutrin is a popular choice because it increases energy.

To find out if psych meds will help you with seasonal depression, schedule an evaluation with a psychiatrist, registered nurse, or advanced nurse practitioner.

Have you tried light therapy? Did it work for you? Let me know in the comments.

– Rebecca

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