Seasonal Affective Disorder, Lightbox Therapy for Winter Depression

One common sub-category of depression is Seasonal Affective Disorder (also known by the appropriate initials SAD). For people with this condition, depression symptoms get more acute in the winter months.

Causes and Symptoms of Winter Depression

The primary cause of winter depression is sunlight deprivation. Getting plenty of sunlight really does help your moods, and not getting enough sunlight can compound your depression. Limited sunlight exposure can throw off your body’s neurochemical balance, especially levels of serotonin and melatonin.

For this reason, Seasonal Affective Disorder has a more pronounced effect the farther you live from the equator, places where the cycle of long summer days and long winter nights is more extreme.

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Symptoms are similar to those of ordinary depression: hopelessness, irritability, lethargy. You might find yourself sleeping way too much, eating too much, drinking too much. The Mayo Clinic section on SAD cites “craving for foods high in carbohydrates” as one common symptom of winter depression. This sure rings a bell with me. Binge eating on starchy snacks has always been one of my self-medicating responses to long winter night blues, even before I understood what depression was. And before I quit alcohol, I drank more in the winter.

Lightbox Therapy for Winter Depression

One recognized treatment for winter depression is light therapy or lightbox therapy. If you’ve never used a lightbox, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a bright, rectangular lamp which mimics sunlight.

The first time I heard about lightboxes, the idea sounded absurd to me. Fake sunlight? I already spend too much of my life staring at glowing rectangles, do I really need one more? But amazingly enough, lightbox therapy really works. The scientific evidence is very solid. I’ve owned a lightbox for 15 years, and my experience has been very positive.

Different people have different preferences for placement of the lightbox, time of day and duration of exposure. I like to have the lightbox angled slightly down from above, around 24 inches from my face. During the darkest December days, I usually sit in front of the lightbox for thirty minutes right after the sun goes down. You don’t have to look directly into the lightbox; I usually read, holding the book so that the light comes at a 30-degree angle down toward my face.

(Please note: David J. Klein is not a medical doctor or licensed therapist, just an inquisitive longtime depression sufferer. Read the directions that come with your lightbox or consult a professional before starting on light therapy.)

Even if you don’t have a lightbox, there are steps you can take to counter the effects of winter sunlight deprivation. Try to spend twilight and the first few hours of darkness in a well-lit social place. Make sure you get plenty of exercise, even if (or especially if) you’re feeling lethargic. Get outside and absorb what sunlight you have. If you live someplace with long, cold winters, consider taking up an outdoor winter sport.

If your winter depression is extreme, you might consider moving to a sunnier climate. Obviously not everyone has the flexibility or desire to make a move like that. But as a longterm life decision, you might think about it. I lived in Wisconsin and Minnesota for years, and while those places had their charms, the decision to move 15 degrees of latitude southward was a wise one. I can’t imagine living through winter in Alaska or Iceland or Finland.

Resources

Some further reading on the subject:

Mayo Clinic: Seasonal affective disorder

National Library of Medicine: Seasonal affective disorder

Patient.co.uk: Seasonal affective disorder

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