Fighting Seasonal Affective Disorder: Could Light Therapy Work For You?

This week, City Data released a list of the cities in America that experience the least sunshine each year. The fourth on the list was Seattle, where I currently live; and the first was Bellingham, Washington, where I went to college. It’s sort of remarkable, then, that I’ve never invested in a light therapy box–but it’s mostly because I’ve never really been sure if they actually work, or if it’s something that would be right for me. Because really, how can you tell if what you’re experiencing is sadness, or S.A.D.ness, as caused by seasonal affective disorder (S.A.D)?

S.A.D., which you know much be a big deal because the New York Times ran a feature piece about it last month, is essentially caused by the darkness of the winter–and it impacts a lot of people. As many as 6% of the population may have full-blown S.A.D., and over 10% may experience some symptoms, which may be aided by light therapy.

Many people believe that it’s due to a reduction in vitamin D, but the truth is, it has more to do with the body’s inability to regulate its sleep cycle when there are only, say, 7 or 8 hours of sunlight all day (hello, Bellingham). As a result, we feel sluggish, depressed, unmotivated, and generally yucky. For some, it can become debilitating.

But how can you tell if you’re suffering from S.A.D., and not some greater depression or mental health crisis? According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, S.A.D. begins to manifest as the darkness settles in–around October or November, depending on where you live. If you always find yourself feeling upbeat and positive in the spring and summer, but depressed in the winter, that’s a good indication. Other symptoms of S.A.D. include, NAMI states:

oversleeping, daytime fatigue, carbohydrate craving and weight gain, although a patient does not necessarily show these symptoms. Additionally, there are the usual features of depression, especially decreased sexual interest, lethargy, hopelessness, suicidal thoughts, lack of interest in normal activities, and social withdrawal.

But S.A.D. can be more subtle than that–some “relapse” in the summer and spring, experiencing S.A.D. across all seasons, according to the Mayo Clinic. Spring and summer seasonal affective disorder can increase anxiety, panic, and feelings of restlessness. If you experience unexplained bouts of altered mood in this way during multiple seasons, a light therapy box in the winter and darkening your bedroom or living room in the sunnier seasons can help your body regulate itself.

S.A.D. and depression manifest differently, both in their duration (bouts of major depression may last from 2 two weeks to several months, but persistent, low-level symptoms like those described above will continue from October until after January), and their reoccurrence (major depression tends to come and go, whereas S.A.D. returns year after year, in the same season).

If your symptoms are mild, and you think you’d like to try adding a little artificial sunshine, light therapy is an easy first line of defense. Even if you’re not actually experiencing S.A.D., time spent in the light can help your body process nutrients better, and generally elevate your mood. Blisstree writer Elizabeth wrote a really excellent piece about choosing the right light therapy box to treat S.A.D.

Of course, if your symptoms persist all year long, or seem more like the results of bipolar disorder or major depression, seeking medical attention before self-administering light therapy is a good idea.

Elizabeth’s insights will definitely be guiding me as I further consider the decision to incorporate light into these deep, dark darks of Western Washington winter.

Image:  Xiaojiao Wang /

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