Struggling With Seasonal Depression? A Light Therapy Box Could Help
By: Sarah Fader
Updated February 15, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC
Is it hard for you to imagine going through the entire year without experiences bouts of depression? Do you find that your struggle with anxiety and depression always come around the same time of year which just so happens to be the changing of the season? If so, you might be dealing with seasonal depression. The good news is, there are plenty of treatments available including the use of a light therapy box.
What Is Seasonal Depression?
Seasonal depression is also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This is when you experience a change in your mood that is impacted by the seasons changing. Most people refer to this as the "winter blues" or “winter depression” because they experience it towards the end of fall and throughout winter. However, there are also people that experience seasonal depression in the spring and summer instead of the winter.
Who Is Likely to Experience SAD?
While it can impact anyone, some people are more likely to be diagnosed with seasonal depression than others. This includes people that are older than 20 years old. However, as you continue to age your chance of experiencing SAD continues to decrease. Another risk factor of SAD is the location where you live. According to American Family Physician, you are seven times more likely to be diagnosed with seasonal depression living in the state of Washington compared to living in Florida.
What Causes Seasonal Depression?
There are a few factors that are believed to contribute to someone experiencing the symptoms of seasonal depression. Since the majority of people experience the symptoms in the fall and winter, it's believed that the shorter days make the impact. People are getting less sunlight due to shorter days. Many areas get more cloudy days in the fall and winter months. During the winter, many people that work full-time arrive at work when it's dark and doesn't get to leave until it's dark again for the night. That means they are missing out on the beneficial vitamins that they can get from natural sunlight.
Time spent outdoors, and natural sunlight are natural mood boosters. When you stop getting the same amount that you are used to it can hurt the chemicals in your brain thus leading to a higher chance of depression.
What Are the Symptoms of Seasonal Depression?
The symptoms of seasonal depression or SAD are the same as those of regular depression and range from feeling sad to weight gain. Just like depression, there are different degrees to which people experience it. Many will start to get mild symptoms during the fall, and then they will worsen as winter sets in. Once the seasons begin to change for spring and the daylight hours start to get longer, the symptoms start to fade.
Signs to watch for include:
- Increased levels of anxiety, especially unwarranted anxiety
- Constantly feeling stressed and unable to handle your regular tasks
- Increased irritability
- Feeling sad and crying more than usual
- Difficulty making decisions
- Feeling hopeless, worthless, or ashamed
- Increased desire to sleep or stay in bed
- Change in appetite, either eating too much or not enough
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Lack of pleasure from doing activities that you normally enjoy
- Weight loss or weight gain
If you are experiencing these symptoms, it's time to talk to a therapist.
What Are the Risks Of Seasonal Depression?
The risks associated with SAD are the same as that of any type of depression. The highest risk that comes with depression is the loss of life through suicide. Even if a person is only struggling with depression during certain times of the year, it can make them a higher risk for self-harm and struggling with suicidal thoughts. This is why it's so important to seek treatment if you feel that you are starting to struggle with depression.
SAD Light Therapy Box
One of the most popular forms of treatment for seasonal affective disorder is light therapy. These boxes go by several different names including bright light therapy boxes, phototherapy boxes, and simply light boxes. Even though they are called different names, they all do the same thing.
The purpose of light therapy boxes is to mimic the natural sunlight that you get outdoors. Since it's believed that natural light has an impact on your brain chemicals and mood, it's also believed that these light therapy boxes can do the same thing.
How To Use Light Therapy For Depression
Even though you can purchase a light therapy box on your own, it's highly recommended that you speak with a doctor or therapist before doing so. There are different types of boxes and different restrictions that may be recommended for your exact situation. That means if you just follow the directions that you find online or from the back of the box you could do damage to yourself.
Generic Guidelines for A Light Therapy Box
To give you an idea of how these devices are used we include some basic information. However, as we mentioned above, do not just follow these steps and guidelines without first talking to your doctor. These are included below just as an example, not as a personal recommendation for you.
Many people use the light first thing in the morning within an hour of waking up for about 20 to 30 minutes. When you are using the light, you should stand with your face between 16 inches and 24 inches away. You will keep your eyes open, but you will not stare directly at the light.
When choosing a box to buy the common recommendation is to get one that provides 10,000 lux light exposure while emitting the smallest amount of UV light possible.
What to Look for When Choosing A Light Therapy Box
The first considerations that you should make when considering light therapy boxes are the recommendations that came from your therapist or doctor. After that additional considerations could include:
- The purpose of the light - Some lights are designed for skin conditions and not for SAD. You want to make sure you purchase the right kind.
- Eye damage - Some lights come with special features that will help protect you from eye damage
- Design - There are many different types of styles and designs that you can choose from. This is strictly a personal preference, but something you'll want to consider as you select your therapy light.
- How bright the light box is - If you are choosing a brighter light it will generally need to be used for a shorter period.
- UV light - You want to find a box that filters out the most amount of UV light possible to protect your skin while you expose yourself to the light.
The side effects of using light boxes are generally mild but could include eyestrain, headache, nausea, irritability or agitation, and mania, euphoria, hyperactivity or agitation associated with bipolar disorder. If you live with bipolar disorder, your doctor may recommend light therapy as a way to manipulate your circadian rhythm. For those with bipolar disorder, bright light therapy may be more effective when combined with another treatment, such as therapy or medication.
What Other Treatments Are Available?
Light therapy boxes aren't the only form of treatment that helps with SAD. Many people find the best plan for treatment includes more than one form of therapy. Here are some other things to consider:
This is a form of talk therapy where a therapist will guide you through sessions. They can help you identify the source of your problems along with strategies and tactics that you can use to fight depression. There are forms of psychotherapy that will help you learn to identify your problem thoughts and beliefs and the impact that they have on your behavior. Then you will learn how to change these thoughts to improve your behaviors.
If you are struggling with depression, your therapist might recommend the use of prescription medication to help you get your chemical levels under control. This is often used along with other forms of treatment as well.
When struggling with depression, it's easy to want to withdraw from people and activities and close yourself up in your house. However, that's the exact opposite than what you should be doing. Instead, it's important that you take care of yourself. Open up your blinds and get whatever natural light you can even while you're inside. Make good choices with your eating, get in some exercise, and try to get the right amount of sleep.
When Do You Know It's Time to Seek Help?
If you are dealing with seasonal depression, don't wait to get help. You will notice that seasonal depression tends to come and go around the same time each year. Mark it on your calendar so you can pay extra attention to the way you are feeling. If you notice that your mood is starting to impact your daily life and behaviors, then it's time to seek help from a professional.
You can look for a local therapist in your area that is experienced with depression and seasonal depression. Or, you can look for an online therapist that provides treatment options for those struggling with depression. Make sure you find a therapist that you are comfortable with and that you have access to when needed. Depression should never be taken lightly, even if it's a seasonal depression that comes and goes with the seasons.
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