How to

4 November 2016

Counteracting SAD: Light Box Therapy vs. Winter Blues

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As many winters as I have lived, I have never gotten over that overly-tired, depressed feeling that sets in just as the temperature begins to drop. Just getting through the long winter months can be difficult given the lack of light and inability to venture out without wearing several layers swaddled by a padded exterior. However, not everyone living in a cold climate is as affected by the season changing as I. That’s because of a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). American Family Physician estimates that a meagre 4-6% of people suffer from SAD while 14% experience a lesser form of seasonal mood change called winter blues. SAD, also called winter depression, mimics depression and is incited by the changing season. Symptoms usually arise as the level of light in a day changes, and is most impactful during December, January, and February.

SAD sufferers are all-too-familiar with the symptoms:

  • Low mood (despair, guilt, worthlessness)
  • A craving for sweets/starches/carbohydrates and the resulting weight gain
  • Difficulty getting out of bed and feeling tired throughout the day
  • Irritability
  • Avoiding leaving the house/engaging in social situations
As someone with self-diagnosed SAD, I can attest to the crippling effects of this disorder. It can be debilitating at times, even unbearable. The disorder affects everyone differently, falling on a spectrum. For those who suffer mild symptoms, artificial light lamps can do a world of good if used consistently.

Light Boxes

The process of light therapy, putting in your time sitting blankly in front of an artificial light, is meant to counteract the lack of light in the cold months. Treatment should be done daily and is most easily achieved by placing the light box on a desk while doing another activity, like working, watching TV, reading, writing, or talking on the phone. Most effective in the early hours, treatments done shortly after waking up will give users the best results.

For those looking to purchase a light box, ensure that the one you choose filters out ultraviolet light (UV) which can cause eye and skin damage. It’s very important to not look directly into the light as the bulbs are quite bright. Typically, the bulb intensity should be 10,000-lux. With this intensity, the light box should be 16 to 24 inches from the face. Depending on the strength of the bulb, treatments can go for as little as 10 minutes up to an hour. Always follow the recommended time found on the directions. It’s best to do your research when buying a light box as you get what you pay for. A high-intensity bulb will be more efficient. A blue, white, or LED bulb will give you results whereas a standard, full spectrum, or daylight bulb will simply bask you in light. For unbiased answers and guidance, go to the SAD website where you’ll find buying information, tips for use, and links to reputable products.

To be totally frank, it is an unreliable method at best with no real evidence of effectiveness. However, it is safe with no lasting side effects (other than potential eyestrain, headaches, nausea, and irritability), and can be used in conjunction with antidepressant medication. The unreliability of the treatment means that some will feel positive effects after a few days while others won’t for two or more weeks.

Dawn Simulators  

A SAD light is defined as a “medically-proven Light Treatment Device designed to treat the root cause of SAD (lack of sunlight). This will be classed by the retailer as VAT exempt (for personal use) if it is a proven medical device” by Alternatively, a dawn simulator is basically an alarm clock that uses light rather than sound. It can be quite effective on those stark winter mornings where only the wafting smell of ground beans can stir you from your slumber. Dawn simulators give users a natural method of waking that counteracts the sleep-related symptoms of SAD; it does not treat any light deficiency symptoms.

Overall, those affected by SAD suffer from lack of sunlight. This can be counteracted by taking advantage of those rare sunny afternoons, venturing out despite the cold, and valuing every moment of sunlight. Learn to appreciate the waking world as the pastel colours of the sunrise flood the world with joy for a brief moment. Take solace in the setting sun, bleeding its fierce aura into the sky just before extinguishing. Know that the seasons will change, as they always do, and stay positive. 

Jacqui Litvan

Jacqui Litvan, wielding a bachelor's degree in English, strives to create a world of fantasy amidst the ever-changing landscape of military life. Attempting to become a writer, she fuels herself with coffee (working as a barista) and music (spending free time as a raver).