When the dark and cold winter months bring on the strong feelings of depression and the blues, the way to recovery is as simple as flipping the light switch.
There are few things as annoying as being awakened by a bright light, it is the unexpectedness that is startling and the temporary blindness that follows can make you feel disoriented.
But as strange as it may seem, that same sensation is what you experience with light box therapy, which is a common treatment option for SAD or seasonal affective disorder. SAD is a type of depression that many people often refer to as the winter blues. It is brought on by seasonal changes, and usually occurs when fall turns into winter (however, there are some people who are triggered by spring and early summer months). Light boxes can help to counteract those feelings of depression because they give off a type of light that can activate mood-boosting hormones.
SAD only affects about 1-3 percent of the U.S. population, though 15% percent report having the “winter blues” feelings of sadness without an adverse effect on their mood or mental health, this suggests that light box therapy can treat SAD as well.
SAD rates increase notably in the northern states, where there is naturally less sunlight. Symptoms typically start to appear between the ages of 20 and 30. Woman are three to five times more likely to develop these symptoms than men.
S.A.D. – The Most Appropriate Acronym for this Condition
A 22-year old woman from suburban Wisconsin was the prime target for SAD. She didn’t understand why winter was such a difficult time for her until a college counselor told her about light therapy. She had placed her light box into storage for a few years, but as the nights got longer and the days were colder, she decided to get it out of retirement.
The symptoms of SAD can be very like major depression, such as thoughts of feeling hopeless or drained of energy, losing interest in the activities that you love or suicidal thoughts. Craig Sawchuk, PhD, who is a clinical psychologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota describes the sings that distinguish SAD from other types of depress as “hibernation-like symptoms”, such as excess sleep, increased appetite, cravings for carbs, weight gain and an overall sluggish feeling.”
How Do Light Boxes Work?
Light boxes are made to treat and prevent those feelings with the specific type and intensity of their lights, measured in lux (the typical intensity is 10,000 lux). Our circadian rhythm is what helps us stay awake during the day and sleep at night, but it can get offset by the extended darkness winter brings. By exposing light directly through the retina, light boxes help the hormones serotonin and dopamine kicking, which resets the circadian rhythm. “It’s like a control-alt-delete where we reset our biological clock,” Sawchuk says.
How to Use a Light Box
It is a good idea to turn on the light within an hour of getting up, so that it can help the body wake up as well. Each morning, the Wisconsin subject woke up, made breakfast, and sat down with the light box about three feet in front of her. The box is only a big bigger than the latest iPHone, but its intense blue light is as bright as the noon sun on a spring day. Every few minutes, she would glance into the light, as is directed, but after just a few minutes of it shining on her, she got used to its high intensity and the therapy sessions would become easier.
But the instantaneous mood boost she was expecting never came, in fact the next day she started feeling even more depressed. All she could think about was getting back into bed.
Stay Patient with This Type of Therapy
Dr. Sawchuk explained to her that we should all remain patient with the device. Some people need two or three weeks before they start feeling the effects of the light box. So she decided to give it another try.
After using the light box for about a week, she started to feel less cranky when she woke up in the morning. Getting out of bed didn’t seem like the worst thing ever, and her feelings of depression started to fade. Even though it was still dark when she left her apartment for work in the morning, she still felt surprisingly awake.
One morning, her train to work was delayed 20 minutes because of a broken track, some people were complaining but she didn’t. She wasn’t upset that she’d be 20 minutes late for work, instead she was happy that she had 20 minutes to herself to just sit and relax. Her new mood allowed her to make the most of a bad situation that was out of her control.