As the days grow darker in the fall and winter, so do our moods. The shift is nature’s way of making us conserve energy for what would naturally be times of scarcity. But of course, most of us do not experience real scarcity in winter, nor do our schedules slow down. We just feel low, and for about 10 percent of us, the low energy is severe enough to be a type of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Symptoms include feelings of hopelessness, low self-esteem, poor concentration, low energy or fatigue, and problems with eating and/or sleeping.
SAD is treated most often in the same way depression is: with medications that have significant and sometime serious side effects. But in 2006, a Canadian study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that light therapy — electrical light boxes that mimic the sun’s rays — is just as effective as Prozac. Last year the Mayo Clinic reported that light therapy “is safe and has few side effects.” So I decided to use myself as a guinea pig and ordered a light box online.
The process was easy, with prices ranging from $120 to $150. When the light box arrived, I started my treatment — about 15 minutes a day of exposure. The light is supposed to shine indirectly into your eyes rather than directly, so I put the box, about the size of a coffee table book, on the side of my desk. It beamed the measured dose of light while I drank my morning coffee and perused Facebook. I noticed a positive effect on my mood right away. In fact, it felt so good that I gave myself three more doses, an overdose that produced a headache.
Light box therapy should be done in the morning, as it may be too stimulating later in the day. It’s important to keep a consistent schedule during the winter months. If you stop too soon, when you think you’re improving, you’ll miss the cumulative effect, which helps bring positive results. Some people experience immediate relief, as I did; for others, it may take a week of treatments or longer.
Light therapy is often not enough on its own to provide a cure for SAD. The treatment of any type of depression demands a well-rounded approach. Exercise, psychotherapy, meditation, increasing pleasurable activities, not isolating yourself, and even medication all are important components of a holistic treatment plan. But if you’ve noticed a correlation between bad weather and bad moods, light box therapy can be a valuable tool for recovery. It’s made a difference for me.