Does Light Therapy For Depression Work?

By Joanna Smykowski|Updated April 14, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Dawn Brown, LPC

What Is Depression?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, depression is a common but serious mental health disorder, with a formal diagnosing term as clinical depression or major depressive disorder. It has severe symptoms that we will touch on that can all affect how you think, feel, and handle daily activities. These activities range from going to work, eating, sleeping, and any social interactions.

Different forms of depression have unique defining qualities to them and can develop under such circumstances, such as:

  • Postpartum depression (PPD) - this depression occurs in mothers after they give birth to their child. It can happen after any birth, meaning if you did not get postpartum depression after your first child, it could still happen later on. This is not to be confused with the "baby blues." The baby blues are mild depressive and anxiety symptoms that clear within two weeks. Postpartum depression is a major depressive disorder. It results in anxiety, extreme sadness, and exhaustion that often makes it near impossible for mothers to complete daily care activities for not only themselves but their child.
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) - this is a depression that is triggered in winter. The lack of natural sunlight results in someone having depression that lasts for the duration of the season, and typically leaves once spring and summer come around and the days are longer and warmer. Like those with nonseasonal depression,people experiencing seasonal affective disorder can gain weight, withdraw socially, increase the amount of time they sleep and experience other mental health challenges. For example, research shows a relationship between SAD and substance use disorders. Some people living with SAD may self-medicate with substances or turn to stimulants. Others aim to numb their symptoms with opioids or alcohol.
  • Psychotic depression - this depression is a mixture of two issues: depression and psychosis. Someone with psychotic depression has hallucinations, meaning that they can hear and see things that their mind creates and it is upsetting. In addition to that, they have false delusions or beliefs that are disturbing for them.
  • Bipolar disorder - while bipolar disorder is very separate from depression, the National Institute of Mental Health includes it within this category when educating on depression because of the manic highs and depressive lows that those with bipolar disorder experience. The extreme lows miss the criteria of major depression and are called bipolar depression.
  • Persistent depressive disorder - this is a depressive mood that lasts at least two years and is persistent, even if there are periods of less severe symptoms.

While this list is not complete and exhaustive, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has a full list of qualities that define the mental illness. The DSM is a manual compiled by hundreds of international experts across mental health and was created to improve diagnosis, treatment, and research.

What Are The Signs And Symptoms Of Depression?

Depression is a serious mental illness. The symptoms for depression occur across a range and can include many or few of the following:

  • Irritability
  • Decreased energy
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling continuously restless
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Having trouble sitting still
  • Being persistently anxious
  • Feeling as if you are empty
  • Being persistently sad
  • Hopelessness
  • Constant pessimism
  • Feeling worthless
  • Helplessness
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or activities
  • Loss of 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
  • Weight and appetite change
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts
  • Physical symptoms that have no clear cause and do not respond to treatment such as
    • Headaches
    • Digestive issues
    • 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 get diagnosed with major depressive disorder, there must be several persistent symptoms.

What Do I Do If I Have A Major Depressive Disorder?

As with any mental illness, it’s critical to seek out treatment. If you feel depressed, the first important step is to get help. Mental health is important, and medical professionals who can help you with your depression should always be the first move. You can get help both in person as well as online. You can look up doctors in your area and find out what your insurance takes, or you can go on sites like where you can provide some basic personal information and health information before getting matched with a therapist who can help you online.This is particularly helpful if a task like leaving the house seems too daunting due to the nature of your mental illness.

What Kind Of Help Can I Get?

While mental health books can be helpful in some cases, mental medical professionals are trained to use a variety of techniques to help people with their mental health disorders. Certain mental health professionals, such as psychiatrists, are doctors that can even prescribe medication to help.

One type of therapy that can be used to help is light therapy. Here, we are going to delve into what light therapy is and whether it can work for depression.

What Is Light Therapy?

Light therapy, also known as bright light therapy or phototherapy, is a therapeutic method that can be used to treat seasonal affective disorder and improve mood. Light therapy can also treat other conditions as well, including other types of depression, sleep disorders, bipolar disorders and eating disorders. It can even be used for other issues that may mess with your internal clock, such as jet lag or adjusting to a nighttime work schedule. In some cases, it has even been used to help dementia. However, the seasonal affective disorder is the main mental health disorder it treats.

This type of light therapy is not to be confused with light therapy that is used to treat skin conditions. Certain conditions, such as psoriasis or other skin disorders, also use light therapy for treatment but with ultraviolet light emitting from the box. It is important to make sure that if you are using a light therapy box for mental health issues, it does not have UV rays emitting from it, because that can cause damage to your eyes and skin if you do not have a treatable condition.

How Does Light Therapy Work?

Light therapy uses light therapy boxes that give off a bright light. The light is meant to mimic natural outdoor light. As we discussed before, the trigger for the seasonal affective disorder is winter and its darkness. Light therapy is meant to combat that by introducing an artificial natural light for some affected with it. During light therapy, a person sits or works near the light therapy box.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the type and amount of light that light therapy boxes produce is supposed to affect brain chemicals linked to mood and sleep. This, in turn, can ease seasonal affective disorder symptoms.

What Are The Risks With Light Therapy?

As with many treatments in life, light therapy does come with some risks. In general, light therapy is a safe form of therapy, and if there are any side effects of light box therapy, they are usually short-lived. However, side effects do include:

  • Eyestrain
  • 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 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 light therapy can be a triggering situation. Consult your doctor to determine if the side effects of light therapy outweigh any risks.

Should I try Light Therapy?

Every person is different, and light therapy may or may not work for you. Trying light therapy may work if you have seasonal affective disorder. Also, if you are looking for a safer, alternative treatment that does not involve antidepressant medication, light therapy may be a good route to take as well.

Light therapy can also be used as a supplement to antidepressant medicationthat you may already be taking.

For some, light therapy may not be the best option. Anything that equates to light sensitivity within your body may make you want to use caution before embarking on this therapy. If you have any kind of skin condition that makes you sensitive to light, if you take any medications or supplements that increase sunlight sensitivity, or if you have any kind of eye condition that makes your eyes sensitive or vulnerable to light damage, it is important to ask a healthcare professional if light therapy is something you should do.

Does Light Therapy Work?

While light therapy is not meant to cure a seasonal affective disorder or any other type of depression, it is meant to ease your symptoms in a more natural, non-medicative route. In its simplest form, it serves as a partial solution to the problem, especially for those with seasonal affective disorder. By bringing light into your world as a patient, it can help the darker times of the year seem brighter and more bearable.

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

Whether light therapy is for you or whether it is not, the important thing is to recognize if you need help and take steps to get it. Sites such as allow you to connect with a mental health professional online to begin that process. If you are someone who has difficulty going outside, which applies in many cases for depression, the ability to get help digitally through the internet is a perfect way to combat that obstacle.

Where can I Learn More About Light Therapy?

If you’re interested in learning more about the benefits and side effects of light therapy as a treatment for seasonal affective disorder (SAD), you will find a plethora of related health information in news outlets, on health care websites, in mental health journals and in published studies exploring mental illness topics.

Should you and your doctor feel that light therapy is right for you, you may also find comparison guides helpful when selecting the right light box. The New York Times’ Wirecutterreviewed light therapy boxes for 2021 and deemed the Carex Day-Light Classic Plus the best light therapy lamp to treat SAD symptoms. The roundup acts as a side-by-side comparison guide for three leading light boxes and is just one such resource at your disposal.

There is also a wealth of information online about SAD if you’re not sure whether you experience seasonal depression. Depending on the nature of your search, you will find additional research linking SAD with substance use disorders, for example, which is common. American Addictions Centers notes that nearly half of all people living with a mental illness will also experience a substance use disorder at some point in their lives. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America notes that about 20% of Americans with an anxiety or mood disorder like SAD struggle with substance use disorder, and vice versa. If you are seeking treatment to manage a mental illness, be sure to contact your doctor or a mental health professional at BetterHelp to get started toward a happier future.

Helpful mental health resources delivered to your inbox
For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns
Speak with a Licensed Therapist
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.