Struggling With Seasonal Depression? A Light Therapy Box Could Help

Updated October 26, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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 lamp.

Can A Light Therapy Box Help With My Seasonal Depression?

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 it typically occurs towards the end of fall and throughout winter. However, there are also people that experience seasonal affective disorder in the spring and summer instead of the winter.

Who Is Likely to Experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

While it can impact anyone, some people are more likely to be diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder 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 affective disorder. 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 Affective Disorder?

The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, 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 Affective Disorder?

The risks associated with seasonal affective disorder are the same as that of any type of depression or similar mood disorders. 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 light boxes go by several different names including bright light therapy lamp, phototherapy boxes, and simply light boxes. Even though they are called different names, these light therapy lamps work in similar ways to treat SAD.

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 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 light lamps 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 light lamp packaging you could do damage to yourself. A healthcare professional can help you determine how long you should be exposed to the light box, which brightness settings to utilize, and even which brand of light therapy lamp is best.

Generic Guidelines for A Light Therapy Box

To give you an idea of how a light therapy lamp is used we include some basic information. However, as we mentioned above, do not just follow these steps and guidelines for using a light therapy lamp without first talking to your doctor. These are included below just as an example, not as a personal recommendation for you.

Can A Light Therapy Box Help With My Seasonal Depression?

Many people use the light lamp 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 lamp.

When choosing a box to buy the common recommendation is to get a lamp 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 - 
  • Design - There are many different types of styles and designs of lamp that you can choose from. This is strictly a personal preference, but something you'll want to consider as you select your therapy light. Some light therapy lamps even come in the form of an alarm clock or a floor lamp.
  • How bright the light box is - If you are choosing a light box with higher brightness levels, it will generally need to be used for a shorter period. 10,000 lux is considered an ideal light intensity for light therapy lamps.
  • Limited UV or UV free - Some of the best light therapy lamps are UV free.

There are a variety of other potential considerations when choosing a light therapy lamp. Some light boxes have different color temperatures, brightness settings, some are glare free, 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:

Psychotherapy

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.

Medication

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.

Self-Care

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 affective disorder 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. Depression should never be taken lightly, even if it's a seasonal depression that comes and goes with the seasons.

Below are some commonly asked questions related to this topic:

Do light therapy boxes work?

Light boxes can work to decrease symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), sleep disorders, and other mental health concerns. Light boxes with 10,000 lux have the ideal intensity for treating these concerns. One study found that 10,000 lux light boxes were very effective when treating symptoms of SAD.

Are light boxes good for you?

Studies have shown that light therapy lamps can help treat symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. Research on the beneficial effects of light therapy goes back to studies performed at the National Institute of Mental Health in the ‘80s. One review, which was partially supported by the National Institutes of Health, found that bright light therapy is effective in treating symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, sleep disorders, and even ADHD.

There are many different brands and types of light therapy lamps. One lamp type that is widely used is the 10,000 lux light therapy lamp. Lux refers to the light intensity that a light source creates, and 10,000 lux is how much light output is suggested for effective light therapy. Some of the best light therapy lamps with 10,000 lux are the Carex Day-Light Classic and the Northern Light Technologies BOXelite. The Carex Day-Light Classic Plus is another great option for treating SAD, with two light settings, a warm glow, and no risk of damage from UV light.

Some SAD lamps have different color temperature settings, brightness levels, options for a warm glow, and other brightness settings. Some are UV free and many are glare free. Some light therapy lamps can double as a floor lamp, which can be great depending on how much space you have, and some can double as an alarm clock. There are a variety of other lamps to choose from, and you can independently research other brands to figure out which light therapy lamp is right for you.

How long should you use light therapy?

Depending on your goals and the light intensity of the light box you’re using, the length of time you’ll use a bright light therapy lamp will differ. Seeking professional medical advice can help you determine how long to utilize a light box or similar indoor lighting. If you have a light therapy lamp with different brightness settings, you may have more flexibility. What’s great about using a light box is you can use one while doing other things, such as finishing your morning routine, watching TV, or even listening to the radio on your alarm clock/light therapy lamp combo. Remember that 10,000 lux is the ideal brightness for a light box. 

Do SAD lamps give you vitamin D?

While SAD lamps do not directly provide you with vitamin D, light therapy boxes can help your body increase production of vitamin D.

How often should you use a light box?

For a 10,000 lux light box, it’s generally recommended that you use it every day for about 20 to 30 minutes. This can vary, so be sure to consult with a healthcare professional before utilizing a light therapy lamp.

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