Does Light Therapy For Depression Work?

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated August 15, 2022

Seasonal depression and other mood disorders can sap your energy, drain your motivation, and make you want to hide away until spring. If you dread the winter months every year, take heart — there are ways to make it better by using adjunctive bright light therapy. Light therapy works for depression and related conditions by replicating the sun's natural light and boosting your brain's functioning throughout the winter. A depression lamp can make getting through this time much easier, even if your symptoms are severe. If you've been diagnosed with seasonal depression or suspect that you may have the condition, read on to learn more about light therapy for depression.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

In Search Of New Therapy Options For Depression?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of major depression that only affects a person during specific seasons when natural UV light is at its lowest levels. SAD follows a regular pattern, generally appearing between October and December and lifting in late spring. Most people with SAD experience this pattern every year. The condition is more prevalent in areas with heavy rates of snowfall, such as in the Midwest.

The winter months can make many people want to hibernate; but, if you find yourself feeling persistently sad, lacking motivation, and losing interest in activities you enjoy when the weather gets cold, you may be dealing with seasonal affective disorder, and you could benefit from light therapy sessions.

Symptoms Of SAD:

Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and/or emotional numbness

Loss of interest in activities and hobbies

Social withdrawal, isolation

Low energy, lack of motivation

Difficulty concentrating

Fatigue and increased need for sleep or other sleep disorders

Increased appetite and carbohydrate cravings

If you recognize the symptoms above as something you're struggling with, talk to your doctor about SAD. A professional can give you a proper diagnosis and recommend appropriate treatments, which may include a sunlight lamp for depression.

Rarely, seasonal affective disorder can come on when the colder months transition into the spring or summer. This is called summer-onset SAD and may have a greater chance of causing anxiety symptoms and insomnia. This condition and another form of mental illness called non-seasonal major depressive disorder may also improve for some people with the use of bright light treatment according to the results from a 2016 randomized clinical trial.

What Causes Seasonal Depression?

Researchers aren't completely sure why some people get seasonal depression while others don't. The most common theory supported by most research frompeer reviewed studies is that changes in the light and dark cycles caused by the short days and long nights of winter disrupt the circadian rhythm of certain people. Your circadian rhythm is your natural 24-hour wake/sleep cycle, a pattern in which your brain has periods of alertness and tiredness related to natural outdoor light intensity.

While your circadian rhythm is controlled by certain parts of your brain, outside influences, such as the amount of light and dark in your environment, play an important role in regulating it. That's why, for example, it's recommended not to use your phone or computer for an hour or two before heading to bed, since the bright light of the screen can send a signal to your brain to stay alert, which persists once you lie down and disrupting your circadian rhythms.

When late fall rolls around, the skies become overcast and the days shorter, and this lack of light is thought to be the major contributor to seasonal depression symptoms.

Light Box For Depression

One of the most effective treatments for depression that occurs on a seasonal basis is light therapy using a light therapy lamp. Exposure to bright light that mimics sunlight is thought to treat SAD by increasing the level of serotonin and other neurochemicals in the brain. A light box mimics the type of bright light that the sun emits, and consistent use can reduce the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.

Some people struggle with seasonal depression year after year, assuming that it's inevitable and there's nothing that they can do about it. While there is no cure for seasonal depression, light therapy, along with other treatments, can help lower the intensity of symptoms and bring them to a manageable level that improves mood, energy levels, and overall quality of life.

Starting Light Therapy and Choosing A Light Therapy Box

The type of light required to treat SAD is different from most lamps. It is much brighter than most indoor lamps with emitted light that is about 20 times brighter than a standard lightbulb. Light therapy boxes use technology that allows them to emit bright light for long periods while drawing minimal energy.

Before shopping for a light therapy box, speak with your doctor to see if they have any recommendations or precautions based on your specific medical history and diagnosis. They can also recommend a schedule for using the box and getting the most from this treatment option. You may also be able to get a prescription for your insurance to cover the cost of a depression lamp. If not, commercially available phototherapy devices are fairly affordable and last for many years.

Light therapy boxes can be purchased on Amazon and many other websites. Choosing a light therapy box should involve taking several factors into consideration. Search around and don't just purchase the first one you see. While light therapy boxes are all designed to treat SAD and other light-sensitive conditions, they vary in their specific design, features, and price points. In addition, a more expensive depression therapy light may not be more effective than a less expensive one. Smaller light boxes can offer relief, but you might need to use it more often and you can’t move around as much while using it.

All light therapy boxes are designed in a way that allow them to produce enough light to mimic that of the sun. This is called the "lux,” or unit of illumination. On a sunny day, a person outside would be exposed to roughly 50,000 lux. Most light boxes have a light source that produces around 10,000 lux.

For a light box to work optimally in controlling depression symptoms from SAD or major depressive disorder, you need one with the following elements:

Offers 10,000 lux

Produces a light wavelength with white light (not blue light)

Sufficient UV light filter

Other features you can look for include size, adjustability, and automatic timers. While these features are not necessary, you may wish to search for one that suits your personal preferences. In addition, before buying a unit, you might want to read the manufacturer’s instructions to understand how to use the device and the proper distance they recommend between the user and the lamp.

How To Use A Light Therapy Box

Light therapy is easy and doesn't require much setup. You position the light box near where you will be sitting so that the light can reach your eyes. You don't want to stare directly at the light box for a prolonged period, just like you're not supposed to stare at the sun. However, it's essential that the light reaches your eyes and you keep your eyes open except for normal blinking.

All that is needed for treatment is to sit by the light box for 30 to 90 minutes, depending upon the recommendation of your doctor. Your light box can be placed anywhere that is convenient for you to sit during that period of time, such as on your desk while you are studying or working. The distance between you and the lightbox is also important, so it should be placed nearby.

To rebalance your circadian rhythm, it's best to perform light therapy early in the morning, such as when you first wake up and before you eat breakfast. If light therapy is engaged too late in the day, the stimulation can sometimes disrupt your ability to fall or stay asleep.

Precautions With Light Boxes

In Search Of New Therapy Options For Depression?

Light boxes do not have many side effects, but there are still a few precautions to keep in mind. In certain individuals, the use of a light box may cause eye strain, headaches, or nausea. These side effects usually wear off after a few uses, but if they persist, contact your doctor for advice.

Light therapy boxes are designed to filter out UV rays, so there is no need to be concerned about eye or skin damage, unlike with the sun's light.

If you've been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, you should use caution when employing a light therapy box. While light therapy has been used successfully in some instances to treat depressive episodes in bipolar disorder, too much stimulation can trigger a manic episode.

Psychotherapy For Depression

Light therapy treatment is often more effective for treating SAD when used in conjunction with other forms of therapy and, in some cases, antidepressant medication. While talk therapy treatment usually refers to cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which involves identifying negative thought patterns and replacing them with positive, realistic alternatives, there are other therapies that may be useful for depression. Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) are two other types of talk therapy that can be effective options for managing ongoing symptoms of depression and bipolar depression.

Most of us find that we have busy schedules during the winter months, so it's not always easy to find time to go to a therapist's office. Online therapy is one option that can be accessed from anywhere, no matter how busy you are.

Other Therapies For SAD

An overall seasonal depression plan can include many factors, all focused on helping you manage symptoms and minimize their impact.

Antidepressant Medication: Most antidepressants currently used for SAD belong to a class called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Medication is usually prescribed just for the months in which the patient is affected.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS): TMS is a type of magnetic therapy for depression which uses electronic pulses to stimulate areas of the brain. TMS therapy for depression is a relatively new treatment that has shown promise, particularly in cases of treatment-resistant depression.

Aromatherapy for Depression: Aromatherapy has shown growing popularity as a treatment for different forms of depression, including SAD. Research is limited, but so far, aromatherapy massage has shown the most promise.

In Conclusion

Seasonal depression can feel like a heavy blanket, making life difficult during the fall and winter months. However, with a light box and other treatments, you can ease your symptoms to a manageable level. Light therapy for depression caused by seasonal changes is effective for many people who experience this form of mental illness. Speaking with someone about your depression can also help. BetterHelp can connect you with a licensed, experienced counselor that will help you through the hard times and teach you skills to cope.


Here are some frequently asked questions about this treatment:

What kind of light therapy is good for depression?
Does light therapy work for major depression?
How long does it take for light therapy to work for depression?
Who should not use light therapy?
Can you use a SAD light too much?
Is light therapy FDA approved for depression?
Does light therapy help anxiety?
Can I use light therapy all day?
What is the SAD syndrome?
What color light is best for mood?

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