Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder: How Light Therapy Can Help

woman looking out sunny window

As winter approaches, some individuals may find themselves struggling with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression that occurs at a specific time of the year, usually in the winter. If you’re feeling down during the colder months, you’re not alone, and effective treatments are available.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is more than just the “winter blues.” It’s a subtype of depression that comes and goes with the seasons. Approximately 5% of adults in the U.S. experience SAD and it tends to start in young adulthood, affecting women more often​​ than men.

Symptoms of SAD

People with SAD may experience:

  • Persistent sadness or feelings of guilt and worthlessness
  • Anxiety, tension, or irritability
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in interests once enjoyed
  • Overeating and weight gain 
  • A drop in energy levels and sleep disturbances that can include oversleeping and lethargy during the daytime
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Loss of sex drive

Loss of exposure to sunlight seems to trigger SAD during the shorter winter days in some people. Psychotherapy and medication are used to treat it like other forms of depression. Because SAD is responsive to light exposure, phototherapy also plays a critical role in its treatment by aligning the circadian rhythm disrupted in SAD. Exposure to bright light helps reset the body’s internal clock and aids in serotonin and melatonin regulation, improving mood and energy levels.

Light therapy, or phototherapy, involves exposure to bright light that mimics natural outdoor light. This exposure causes a chemical change in the brain that lifts mood and eases other symptoms of SAD. Light therapy is especially effective when used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan that includes psychotherapy and, in some cases, medication​​​​.

A light therapy lamp for SAD treatment should be designed to filter out most UV light to prevent eye damage​​ and have an intensity of about 10,000 lux​​. Dawn simulators are also available. They mimic natural sunrise, often set to reach maximum brightness when you would like to wake up, gradually increasing room brightness. They help regulate the circadian rhythm and enhance mood upon waking.

SAD LightBox Therapy

Light therapy affects brain chemicals linked to mood, easing SAD symptoms. It is particularly useful when used regularly. Here’s how to use a light therapy lamp effectively:

  • It’s important to consult your healthcare provider before starting light therapy, especially if you have eye problems, are sensitive to light, or have a history of bipolar disorder​​. 
  • Consistency: Use it daily during the fall and winter or as your healthcare provider recommends.
  • Timing: Use the light box within the first hour of waking up in the morning for about 20 minutes. Start with a few minutes and then gradually work up to 20 minutes.
  • Distance: Position it about 16 to 24 inches from your face.
  • Don’t look directly into the light therapy lamp. Instead, place it off to the side at 10 and 2 o’clock if you’re looking forward.

When seeking light therapy benefits, consult healthcare professionals for recommendations tailored to your specific needs. Consider factors like light intensity, duration of use, and the particular type of lightbox that best fits your lifestyle. Many models are currently available at reasonable prices at big box retailers, and you can find them reviewed online.

Coping With SAD

In addition to light therapy and professional treatment, self-care practices are vital:

  • Continue your regular treatment plan of psychotherapy and medication if you are taking any
  • Make your environment sunnier and brighter by opening blinds or sitting closer to bright windows.
  • Spend some time outdoors every day, even when it’s cloudy
  • Socialize and connect with loved ones for emotional support.
  • Practice body-based stress management techniques like yoga or meditation.
  • Continue your healthy exercise and nutrition plans.
  • Normalize sleep patterns, maintaining consistent sleep and wake times. Getting up at the same time every day is beneficial, no matter what time you go to sleep.
  • If you can, consider taking short winter trips to sunnier or warmer locations if you experience SAD during this season​​.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real and treatable condition. If you’re experiencing symptoms of SAD, psychotherapy supplemented by light therapy could be a beneficial treatment option. Remember, you’re not alone; professional help is always available. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a psychologist for guidance.

If you are struggling with Seasonal Affective Disorder, contact our office today to discuss how we can support you through this challenging time.