Reviewed by Aaron Horn, LMFT
Seasonal depression is a mental condition that can cause severe life consequences. So, it makes sense to seek treatment if you know you have this disorder. Once you realize you need help, it's time to consider what treatment types will work best for you. One option you have is light therapy. Here's how to know if you have seasonal depression and a glimpse at how and why light therapy works.
Recognizing You Need Treatment
No one feels wonderful absolutely all the time. Yet, for those with symptoms of seasonal depression, life can get challenging during the long nights of winter. So, what are you supposed to do if you continue to feel down for several months of the year, especially if it happens every year? The first thing to do is find out if you have this depressive disorder.
The symptoms of seasonal depression are similar to those of major depression. There are differences in the fact that people with seasonal depression tend to have specific depression symptoms.
- Depressed mood or sadness
- Little or no interest or pleasure in things you used to enjoy
- Eating more or craving carbohydrates.
- Sleeping too much
- Feeling fatigued and having little energy no matter how much you sleep
- Moving with no purpose, such as pacing or wringing your hands
- Talking or moving extra slowly
- Feeling guilty or worthless
- Having trouble concentrating, thinking clearly, or making decisions
- Thinking of suicide or death
When Symptoms Begin
You might begin to notice symptoms of seasonal depression at any age. But the most common ages for it to begin are between 18 and 30. It's also important to recognize that seasonal depression symptoms can happen at different times of the year. Most people associate seasonal depression with winter and its decrease in daylight. However, people with seasonal depression often have symptoms at other times of the year, too.
For example, you might feel depressed in the spring. It may be that spring depression happens because you're already depressed from the winter's lack of light. Then, before your depression can lift, the added bright light of spring increases your motivation to do something drastic about your depression. This phenomenon may be one reason why suicides tend to spike in the springtime.
Depression Screening And Diagnosis
Seasonal depression has many of the same symptoms as other depressive disorders. So, you can learn a lot about your condition by taking a depression screening quiz. After a brief instruction, the test begins with a simple question or statement. Although it's related to a symptom, you don't have to think about what is and isn't a symptom of depression. You just answer the question by clicking on the one that matches your experiences.
The test is confidential. If you don't want anyone else to know you took the test, they won't. But if you do decide to seek help, the test might be a starting point for treatment. You can get the report and share it with the mental health professional who will diagnose and treat your condition.
The psychiatrist or therapist can then ask you more detailed questions. For example, they might ask about the types of symptoms you're having, how severe they are, how they're affecting your life, and when they happen. After diagnosis, they can recommend treatments, possibly including light therapy.
What Is Light Therapy?
Light therapy means using bright lights to decrease symptoms of a physical or mental health condition. Light therapy can be used to treat skin conditions, insomnia, or seasonal depression. But for each situation, you need to know what kind of lamp to use and how often to use it.
Why Light Therapy Works For Seasonal Depression
There may be many reasons why you get depressed during certain seasons of the year. And not all of those reasons have anything to do with light. However, if the lack of light is a factor in your seasonal depression, light therapy might be useful for you.
Light therapy is used for seasonal depression because that condition may be related to not getting enough sunlight. The bright lights of a seasonal depression light stimulate the cells in your retina. That's important because your retina connects to your hypothalamus. Then, your hypothalamus is activated to control your circadian rhythms. With those rhythms stabilized, your brain works correctly to perk you up in the daytime and settle you down at night.
Getting The Right Lamp
Getting the right light is essential if you want to get relief from seasonal affective disorder symptoms. Be aware that there are many lamps marketed as SAD lights, but not all of them work. Some lamps you'll find online aren't bright enough to do the job. Lux is a measure of brightness. An adequate seasonal depression light usually needs to provide at least 10,000 lux of light.
There are a few things to watch for when buying a seasonal depression light. First, be alert to very high lux measurements cited by manufacturers. Different light makers measure the lux of a lamp in different ways. If it's a tiny lamp, it's doubtful that it will be useful even if the manufacturer claims it has a very high lux.
Another thing to be aware of is that many factors are involved in creating an effective and safe SAD light. Some of those elements include:
- The overall size of the lightbox
- How many lamps it has
- The lamp power
- Types of filters used
Ideally, you could choose a light that has been proven effective in clinical trials. The best way to ensure you're getting the best SAD light for you is to ask for a recommendation from a therapist or psychiatrist who specializes in the treatment of seasonal depression.
How To Use The Lamp
Using the SAD lamp properly increases its effectiveness. Correct use may also prevent severe damage to your eyes. Start by placing the light somewhere that you can sit beside it at the proper distance. Make sure the lamp is at least as high as your eye level when you're sitting. Many people put their seasonal depression light on a tilting lampstand, which is sometimes included when purchasing the lamp.
You need to avoid looking directly into the light. However, you need to be close enough for it to work. Therapists usually recommend you have your face about 16 to 24 inches away from it. You could just sit and relax beside the SAD light. But many people prefer to do something as they wait. You might read the newspaper, eat breakfast, do a crossword puzzle, or work on a craft.
When To Use The SAD Light
Using the light at the right time can make all the difference. Typically, therapists recommend that you start your day with light therapy for seasonal affective disorder. At the beginning of the day, you turn on and sit beside the lamp for about 20 to 30 minutes. New lightboxes may be available to gradually increase from low light to bright. If so, they might make the transition from dark to light more comfortable, safe, and effective.
Side Effects Of Light Therapy
Light therapy is much safer than some of the other treatments available for depression. However, it isn't entirely without risk. You may experience eyestrain, nausea, or headaches after using the SAD light. You may become irritable or agitated. And, you might have mania, hyperactivity, or euphoria because of the increased light. Because of these last side effects, light therapy is rarely recommended for people with bipolar depression.
Sometimes, the side effects go away after you've been using the light for a few days. If they continue, your therapist might recommend:
- Sitting farther from the light
- Sitting by it for a shorter time
- Turning off the light to take a break halfway through the session
- Using the light at a different time of day
Working With A Therapist
If you have seasonal depression, it's always best to work with a mental health professional. Try to find someone with experience in treating the seasonal affective disorder. Ask them if they are familiar with the requirements of safe, effective light therapy. They may be able to give you a list of the best lightboxes to use. They can then guide you in planning your light therapy sessions and assess your progress along the way.
But for most people with SAD, it's helpful to do more about the depression. Therapy can help you develop a more positive, realistic mindset. You can work with your therapist to deal with trauma, family issues, career issues, or other problems that worsen your seasonal depression. You may also need to take antidepressants to help relieve your symptoms, especially during the seasons when you experience them the most.
Getting a seasonal depression lamp may be one way to help with SAD. If you do use a SAD light, it's crucial to get a safe, effective lamp. You need to use it correctly to get the best results. And working with a therapist can ensure that you get effective light therapy and take advantage of other treatment methods. If you're ready to do something about your sadness and depression symptoms this season, start by taking the screening test. The sooner you get help, the sooner you'll feel and function better.