Light Therapy for the Winter Blues
We don’t have to state the obvious and tell you that it’s dark in the Pacific Northwest much of the winter. If the lack of sunshine has you feeling blue, you might benefit from light therapy.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is common in northern latitudes. SAD symptoms include loss of energy, inability to concentrate, desire to eat unhealthy foods, and feelings of displeasure or worthlessness. They usually begin in late fall and end in the spring.
These feelings are common in the winter, but aren’t enough to qualify for a mental health diagnosis. The actual medical condition is depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern.
When symptoms are mild, the first treatment is often light therapy. On December 21, Seattle has about 7 and a half hours of daylight and Anchorage gets about 6.
The treatment is simple: Buy a bright white light and sit next to the light with eyes open, but don’t look directly into it.
“Light therapy can be used from 15 minutes to up to 1 hour, with 30 minutes being the norm. It depends on how severe the depression is and how it affects the patients,” said Dr. Shana Feibel, staff psychiatrist at the Lindner Center of HOPE. “The timing of the light therapy is crucial. It can be used at different times of the day, with the morning light, just after awakening, being the most common. Evening doses may also work, depending solely on how the individual responds.”
Positive responses can occur as quickly as a few days to 1 week.
Scientific studies show light therapy is effective in reducing depressive symptoms and has minor adverse effects. Light therapy is not recommended for people who have had a manic episode in the past as it could increase their changes of becoming manic again.
Other tips for managing mood
Stay active: We know it’s hard to get outside when it’s dark 16 to 18 hours a day, but moving your body can help maintain mood.
- Get out for a midday walk.
- Join a gym for the winter months.
- Find a fitness buddy to keep you accountable.
- Take up a winter sport like snowboarding or cross-country skiing.
Keep socializing: Connecting with fellow humans can help with mental and physical health. It boosts good feelings and even lowers risk of dementia. Even a video call with a loved one can increase feelings of connection. Other ways to get involved include volunteering, attending religious services, or taking a class.
Take vitamin D: Even on sunny days, our skin rarely produces enough vitamin D to keep the body healthy. Similarly, food sources of vitamin D aren’t popular in the American diet. Most Pacific Northwesterners could benefit from popping a supplement. It’s rare to get too much vitamin D, but ask your doctor if you have concerns.
How to buy a sun lamp
First, know that light boxes are unregulated. You could ask your doctor or mental health professional for a recommendation. The general recommendation is 10,000-lux bright light.