Eastern Michigan University

Light Therapy for Depression

Depression is a disorder that causes people to experience symptoms such as low mood and loss of interest or pleasure in previously enjoyed activities.  Other symptoms might include changes in sleep or eating, feelings of worthlessness, excessive guilt and thoughts of suicide.   Sometimes people with depression find that their symptoms are worse during the fall and winter months, and improve during the spring and summer.  This pattern of symptoms is sometimes called Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.  Light therapy can help reduce symptoms for people who have this type of depression.   

What is light therapy?

Research indicates that natural light affects the receptors in our brains that produce serotonin. Serotonin levels affect people’s mood. Fall and winter seasons are characterized by a reduced amount of daylight. Light therapy provides a full spectrum of artificial light into your eyes. According to NAMI, “Scientists believe that light therapy works by altering the levels of certain brain chemicals.” Light therapy consists of sitting about 2-3 feet from the SAD light for about 20-30 minutes. Morning is the recommended time for light therapy. You can eat or read while sitting in front of the light.

What other treatments are available?

  • Psychotherapy
  • Medication

When is light therapy not enough?

  • When Symptoms Occur Throughout the Year
  • When Symptoms Don't Improve with Light Treatment
  • When Suicidal Thoughts Occur

Are there any side effects?

Side effects are uncommon and usually mild. Light therapy consumers have complained of eyestrain, dry eyes, headaches, or insomnia. The effects can be combated by reduced time and light exposure. People who have bipolar disorder are encouraged to consult with a physician prior to using the lamp. In addition, people who are taking light sensitive medications or have medical conditions such as retinal diseases, diabetes, and lupus should use light therapy only with physician approval.

What else can I do to reduce seasonal depression?

  • Educate yourself about depression and gain support from friends and family.
  • Increase your amount of daily light exposure.
    • Open up curtains and blinds in your home and at work.
    • Find sunny spots for study or leisure time.
    • Avoid sleeping during daylight hours. 
      • Depression can make you feel tired, but sleeping late may worsen seasonal depression because it causes you to miss daylight hours.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule.
  • Avoid major life changes or stress during fall and winter months.
  • Schedule sunny vacations during winter months.

I am interested in light therapy. What should I do next?

  • A counselor may use a screening tool or assessment to help determine whether light therapy is right for you.

Want to learn more about seasonal depression? 

Back to Self-Help Resources

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