Does Light Therapy For Depression Work?
Updated June 13, 2019
Seasonal depression 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. Light therapy for depression can replicate the sun's natural light and help maintain your brain's functioning throughout the winter. A depression lamp can make getting through this time much easier, even if your depression is 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)
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of major depression that only affects a person during specific seasons. SAD follows a regular pattern, appearing between October-December and lifting in late spring. A person with SAD usually has 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.
Symptoms Of SAD Include:
- 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, increased the need for sleep
- Increased appetite, 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, the 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 type of SAD does not usually respond to light therapy.
What Causes Seasonal Depression?
Researchers aren't completely sure why some people get seasonal depression while others don't. The most common theory 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.
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 hours 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.
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 is therapy light for depression that occurs on a seasonal basis. 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.
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 your mood, energy levels, and overall quality of life.
Choosing A Light Therapy Box
The type of depression lighting required to treat SAD is different from most lamps. It is much brighter than most indoor lamps, 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. You may be able to get a prescription for your insurance to cover the cost of a depression lamp. If not, light boxes 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.
All light therapy boxes are designed in a way that produces 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 produce around 10,000 lux.
For a light box to work optimally in controlling depression symptoms, you need to find one with the following elements:
- Offers 10,000 Lux
- ProducesWhite Light (Not Blue Light)
- Sufficient UV 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 preference.
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.
All that is needed for treatment is to sit by the light box for 30 minutes 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 if 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. 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
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 times using the light box, 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 is often more effective for treating SAD when used in conjunction with therapy and, in some cases, antidepressant medication. While talk therapy 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 helpful for managing ongoing symptoms of depression.
Most of us find that we have busy schedules during the winter months and 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.
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. 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.