Lift Your SAD Depression with DIY Light Therapy at Home
Around the time of year that we set the clocks back, it really starts to kick in - the total exhaustion, the sense of hopelessness and inertia, like nothing is worth the sheer physical, mental and emotional effort.
All you want to do is take on a load of carbohydrates, and be left alone to sleep until spring comes back with its energizing sunshine.
Does that sound familiar to you?
Welcome to my world - the not-so-wonderful world of Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD. Living in a northern country can be a lot of fun if you're into snow sports, but the shortage of daylight hours and lots of cloudy days in fall and winter can also trigger a seasonal depression that is no laughing matter.
Here is a simple solution that works wonders for me, and I hope it may help you with your seasonal depression, too.
My No-Meds Choice of Treatment: Light Therapy at Home
I've been using a daylight "light therapy" lamp for more years than I can remember - at least ten years, and maybe more like fifteen - just about the time the first stories came out to tell us Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real medical condition that is treatable with light therapy.
For many of us, at-home light therapy is a simple, effective "home remedy" - a welcome alternative to treatment with antidepressants (which can have negative side effects) or talk therapy and counselling, which can be hard to fit into your schedule and may not even be available in your community. The light is self-help you can use yourself, at home, any time it is convenient for you and you feel the need of a natural boost to your outlook and mood.
No, SAD is not the same thing as a mild case of winter blues.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real physical and mental health condition with potentially harmful - and certainly unpleasant - physical and emotional symptoms. This kind of depression just happens to follow a seasonal pattern that's connected to the amount of daylight - the same kind of triggers that lead so many wild animals to hibernate through the winter.
From the time I was a teenager, I've suffered with S.A.D. - and when I say "suffered" that's not a term used lightly. It's not something I talk about often, even though attitudes toward all kinds of clinical depression have changed a lot in the past few years, but I'm here to tell you that S.A.D. can wreck a relationship and lose you a job you love.
What Works for Me: Light Therapy
For me, getting outdoors as much as possible is very helpful. But that can be hard to do in cold weather, and what with having to work for a living. The big key to surviving my annual bout of S.A.D. has been the use of a special lightbox that simulates the effects of natural daylight.
It sits beside me while I work or read, doubling up as a task light in place of a table, which I find very convenient and space-saving, too. The bright day-light effect is great for working on puzzles, doing sewing and lap quilting, reading fine print, and all sorts of other activities that require close attention and can strain your eyesight if the ambient light level in your room is too dim.
Tip - For therapeutic effect, you need a lightbox with no less than 10,000 LUX (that's a measurement of brightness) that is designed to simulate the natural bright light of longer days. This is the current model of the same lamp I use.
Before I got my "Uplift" lamp, I didn't know for sure if it would help me - I'd never known anyone who used one, or knew anything about them. In fact, the whole idea of "light therapy" was still relatively new and unfamiliar to the general public back then, so it really was a "leap of faith" to buy a special lamp on the tight budget of a freelancer with student loans to pay off.
Hey, I thought, worst-case scenario, it's a good bright task light for desk work and doing crafts!
Honestly, though, I've never looked back, and wouldn't be without one now.
Starting about mid-October each year and running through to early April, I use the lamp every day. Generally I turn it on for a half-hour or so at a time, especially first thing in the morning, and it literally "brightens" my outlook. I find that I use it more on dull grey days and when I've not had enough exercise to get the endorphins helping out with the fight against depression.
Tip - do be sure to give yourself at least a half-hour with the S.A.D. light turned off before bedtime, to give your brain time to ramp back down and get convinced that the day is done.
Could a Light Therapy Lamp Help You, Too?
I'm not about to claim that light therapy will work for everyone with S.A.D. - but it's been a veritable life-saver for me.
Learn More about Seasonal Affective Disorder
Doesn't it seem ridiculous, somehow, that something as simple as a lack of daylight can send a person into a tailspin - and do it over and over, year after year?
But S.A.D. is no joke.
Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
More Than Just Feeling SAD
This is a real medical condition, not just a matter of getting grumpy and moody or "blue" in winter, sleeping in and stuffing ourselves with carbohydrates. Seasonal Affective Disorder can present itself as a serious clinical depression in a significant number of people, appearing during the fall and winter months, typically kicking in as the days begin to grow shorter and we put our clocks back. Even in its milder forms, the lack of energy, negative thoughts, and urge to "hibernate" can create real problems in our work lives and personal relationships.
Symptoms and Causes
If you think you may be affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder, do talk to your doctor to learn more about the condition and get their advice about the options for low-cost treatment you can do at home with the use of a therapy light.
Dr. Lam Talks about SAD and Light Therapy
Here, in the two videos (Part 1 and Part 2) below, you can watch a presentation by Dr. Raymond Lam on seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and light therapy. Dr. Lam is a respected researcher and Professor of Psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, author of 11 books, and Executive Chair of the Canadian Network for Mood and Anxiety Treatments (CANMAT).
He gave this public talk a few years back at a Scientific Conference of the Society for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms held in Vancouver, Canada a few years back. It remains one of the most useful discussions of SAD and light therapy, and the role of our sleep patterns, biorhythms, etc. in maintaining a positive mood and good mental health.
SAD and Light Therapy - Part 1
SAD and Light Therapy - Part 2
This is the up-to-date version of the 10,000 LUX light therapy table lamp I've been using for the past decade - they've made it a better looking unit, I must say, compared to the kind of industrial look of my vintage clamp-on lamp, all metal rectangle. The company has changed its name but it's still the acknowledged leader in light therapy products for home use. 10,000 LUX is the light intensity level recommended as the minimum that's considered effective for light therapy use, but safe to use yourself at home.
Try spending just a hour in the morning, and again at the mid-afternoon "low point" so many of us experience, as a starting point. You'll want to adjust your duration and timing of use to find what works best for your mental health and your work/life schedule, but that's fine - whatever works. Just be sure not to use the light within a couple hours of bedtime, to give your brain a chance to understand that the day is ending and it will soon be time to sleep.