Depression Light Therapy

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated June 3, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Light therapy, also referred to as phototherapy and bright light treatment, is a treatment option that mimics natural sunlight for people who experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD)—also called seasonal depression—and nonseasonal major depressive disorder. Treatment with a light box works by having someone sit roughly two feet away from a light therapy box for about 30 minutes every day to absorb the benefits of the light.

This type of light can positively affect circadian rhythms, sleep, and mood. It can be particularly effective in treating the mental illness called SAD, or seasonal affective disorder—though a light box may also be used to address bipolar disorder, anxiety, as well as some medical conditions. However, in many cases, seasonal affective disorder light therapy can be most effective when combined with other treatment methods, such as full-spectrum light therapy and lifestyle changes. It can be possible to connect with a licensed therapist in person or online. Below, we’re going to discuss its effects on seasonal affective disorder, and how it can be utilized as part of a comprehensive treatment plan. 

What is depression?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, depression is generally a common but serious mental health disorder. The term actually encompasses several depressive disorders, including major depressive disorder (MDD) also called major depression, postpartum depression (PPD), and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Depression symptoms may also arise in conditions like bipolar disorder or bipolar depression. Symptoms of both seasonal and nonseasonal depression can be severe and may affect how you think, feel, and handle daily activities. These activities can range from going to work, eating, sleeping, and any social interactions. Continue reading to discover several of the potential symptoms.
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Potential symptoms 

  • Irritability
  • Weight gain or weight loss
  • Decreased energy
  • Fatigue
  • Restlessness
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Trouble sitting still
  • Persistent anxiety
  • Feelings of emptiness
  • Persistent sadness
  • Hopelessness
  • Constant pessimism
  • Feeling worthless
  • Helplessness
  • Loss of interest and/or pleasure in hobbies or activities
  • Moving and talking slowly
  • Loss of concentration
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Difficulty remembering
  • Constant over-sleeping or inability to wake, especially in the early morning
  • Appetite change
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts*
  • Physical symptoms that have no clear cause and do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive issues, and pains
In addition to the foundation of a low mood, an individual who is depressed can experience a variety of symptoms, and they can mix and match in many ways. To be diagnosed with major depressive disorder, there must be several persistent symptoms. Only a licensed mental health professional can diagnose depression and other mental illnesses.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text 988 to talk to someone over SMS. Support is available 24/7.


Light treatment for seasonal affective disorder

Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, is a therapeutic method that can be used to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that occurs during the shorter days of winter, and improve mood. Because seasonal affective disorder typically occurs during months when sunlight is scarce, it is often used during winter months.
Commercially available phototherapy devices are designed to provide a high-intensity artificial light source (10,000 lux) to offer relief and treat SAD and other mood disorders. Researchers have also studied the effects of using a lower intensity artificial light at different wavelengths (colors). For example, studies show that a low-intensity blue-enriched white light at an intensity of 750 lux was equally as effective as the standard 10,000 lux bright light in treating SAD symptoms. Another study shows that blue light wavelength is more effective than red light wavelength in treating SAD symptoms. 

Therapy with different light wavelength can also treat other conditions such as sleep disorders, bipolar disorder, and eating disorders. As a part of environmental therapeutics, it can even be used for issues that may negatively affect your biological clock (sleep-wake cycle), such as jet lag or adjusting to a nighttime work schedule. In some cases, these lamps have even been used to help with dementia. However, SAD treatment is typically the main mental health disorder addressed by this form of treatment.

This type of lamp used in light therapy for depression is not to be confused with those used to treat skin conditions. Certain conditions, such as psoriasis or other skin disorders, can use UV therapy for treatment. It is important to make sure that if you are using a lamp for mental health issues, it does not emit UV light rays, because this kind of emitted light may damage your eyes and skin with consistent use. Follow the manufacturer's instructions to ensure safety and effectiveness during your sessions.

How does bright light therapy work?

Light therapy typically uses phototherapy devices, such as light boxes that emit a bright light source with an appropriate light intensity. The light emitted from a light box is usually meant to mimic natural outdoor light. Often, the main trigger for seasonal affective disorder occurs during the dark days of fall and winter. Studies show that optimal implementation for light therapy include choosing the right device, implementing a standardized treatment regimen, and performing treatment in the morning. Important considerations to make when choosing the right device include finding the right intensity and wavelength (color). During treatment, a person usually sits or works about two feet from the box with their eyes open for around 30 minutes each day.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the type and amount of light that boxes produce can affect brain chemicals linked to mood, sleep, and circadian rhythm. This, in turn, can ease seasonal affective disorder symptoms, as well as symptoms of other types of depression in some cases.

What are some risks?

Bright light therapy is generally safe. However, some people may experience mild adverse effects that are typically short-lived. Potential side effects of light boxes can include:

  • Eye strain
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Irritability or agitation
  • Mania, euphoria, hyperactivity, or agitation associated with bipolar disorder
The Mayo Clinic suggests that people with sensitive skin or eye conditions should speak with their doctor about potential side effects prior to beginning treatment. And, while some research shows that light therapy may help treat mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, the Mayo Clinic cautions that it can be a triggering situation. Please consult your doctor to determine if the benefits outweigh any risks that can come with the use of light boxes. Safety and effectiveness are essential factors to consider when choosing and using these devices.

When to try light therapy for depression

Every person is different, and light therapy sessions may or may not work for you. Obtaining a light box and starting treatment may work if you have seasonal affective disorder. If you are looking for a safer, alternative treatment that does not involve antidepressant medication, this may be a good route to take as well. It can also be used as a supplement to antidepressant medication that you may already be taking.
For some, this may not be the best option. Those with any form of light sensitivity may be better off avoiding this treatment option.

Does it this therapy work?

While light therapy can provide symptomatic relief, it is not generally meant to cure seasonal affective disorder or any other type of depression. It may be used in conjunction with antidepressant medications or cognitive behavioral therapy. A light box, including smaller light boxes, is typically intended to ease symptoms over several weeks through a more natural route, considering the physical characteristics of the emitted light. It can serve as a partial solution to the problem, especially for those with seasonal affective disorder, as Oldham MA suggests. By bringing light into your world, it can help the darker times of the year seem brighter and more bearable. In conjunction with psychotherapy, this method can provide comprehensive support for individuals coping with depression.

As with any type of treatment, it can be more effective for certain people. Contact your mental health professional to see if it is a route you can explore.

Other treatment options

Aside from or in addition to light therapy, talk therapy can be an excellent and effective form of treatment for depression. However, it may be particularly challenging to find a local therapist, schedule an appointment, leave the house, and drive to the therapist’s office. If this is the case for you, you may wish to consider online therapy. With online therapy, you can connect with a licensed mental health professional from the comfort of your home, eliminating many of the steps to getting the support you deserve. In addition, it is often much easier to switch therapists as needed until you find one that you’re comfortable with.

As this study explains, online therapy can be just as effective in treating depression as traditional face-to-face therapy. Although some people may be concerned about the efficacy of online therapy, the growing body of evidence largely reports that it can be as effective—if not more so—than in-office treatment.

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Light therapy, which usually involves sitting about two feet away from a light box for 30 minutes per day, can be an effective treatment for some types of depression in some cases. Those living with seasonal affective disorder, in particular, may experience benefits such as improved mood, sleep, and circadian rhythms. Still, it may work best when combined with other treatment options. For example, talk therapy is often very helpful for those living with different forms of depression, including seasonal affective disorder. Whether you prefer in-person or online therapy, please don’t hesitate to get the help you deserve.
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