How Light Therapy Can Help You Combat Seasonal Affective Depression

The joy of the holiday season is closing in, and every year without fail, the world tries to convince us it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Somehow, we’re just not buying it.

Before the fun of snowmen and gift-giving arrives, we start to feel heavier limbs, a sense of hopelessness, and a fatigue so extreme it’s hard to get out of bed.

Sound familiar?

You might be experiencing seasonal affective depression, also known as SAD. There may be less sunlight this time of year, but we promise there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Let’s talk about how light therapy can help you combat SAD.

What is Seasonal Affective Depression (SAD)?

SAD is depression that is triggered by the change of the seasons. It typically occurs when fall arrives and the sun comes out for less of the day. People can even experience a less severe type of sadness known as the “winter blues”. It’s totally normal to feel a little down in the dumps during the colder months—you’re stuck inside more often and the sun sets earlier every day.

Unlike the winter blues, SAD is a kind of depression, meaning it affects your thinking patterns and daily life. Though we aren’t sure why, women are far more likely to experience SAD than men, representing 75% of all cases.

People who are also at risk include young adults, people with other mood disorders, people related to those with mental health conditions, and people who live in far north or cloudy areas. The good news is that there are treatment options available, and one of the most popular is light therapy.

Why Light Therapy?

There are many theories as to why some people experience SAD, and most relate to a lack of sunlight throughout the day. Exposure to sunlight sets our biological clock. Our pets may not be able to read clocks, but they know exactly when to start meowing or barking for breakfast and dinner. This is because the sun sets our internal clocks. When we have less sunlight, our biological clocks shift.

This shift affects a few things: mood, sleep, and hormones. These changes can throw anyone into a temporary depression. Sunlight helps regulate our levels of serotonin or our “happy” hormone, so having less sun can cause these levels to fall.

Less sunlight can also lead to a vitamin D deficiency, which can also affect serotonin levels and mood. Plus, a lack of sunlight can stimulate an overproduction of melatonin, a chemical that helps us sleep. Having an excess of it can make us feel more sluggish or tired than usual.

Main Benefits of Light Therapy

Light therapy (also known as phototherapy) works by exposing someone to an artificial light source that’s meant to mimic the effects of the sun. You’re given a flat, box-like light to leave out near you while you work, eat, or relax. These lightboxes typically give out between 2,500 and 10,000 lux (a unit to measure light). Sessions normally last only 20 to 30 minutes, depending on how you respond to treatment and how powerful the lightbox is.

If you’re looking for a non-invasive kind of therapy that you can do from the comfort of your own home, light therapy is a great option. You can purchase or rent your own boxes, and the treatment sees few or mild side effects. (Depending on the harshness of the light, some people experience sunburn or headaches.)

Some experts believe the success of light therapy is because of the placebo effect. Others think it serves as a fine supplement to counseling and medication. Remember that because we are more sedentary in the winter, it’s also important to get plenty of exercise to help regulate moods.

One of the best ways we can overcome mental illness is by building consistent, reliable routines that give us a sense of stability. Adding light therapy to your daily routine at the start of fall or winter is a great way to stabilize yourself before entering the darkest time of the year.

It also never hurts to have someone to talk to when those depressive episodes just don’t seem to cease. If you’re looking to build a therapy treatment plan to help combat SAD, reach out to one of our counselors today.