‘Winter blues’ season is here: Experts share tips for using a lamp to help with seasonal affective disorder

(NEW YORK) — The “winter blues” season is upon us.

As our exposure to daylight decreases over the winter months, millions of Americans suffer each year from the effects of seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, a form of depression that for some can surface like clockwork each year.

SAD is defined as a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, typically arriving in the late fall and early winter and going away during the spring and summer. SAD can also occur with the change of season to summer, but that type is much less common than the winter episodes, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Since diagnosis of SAD emerged in the 1980s, the mainstay of treatment has focused on the one thing most of us aren’t getting enough of in the winter: sunlight. One at-home treatment option, light therapy, works by using electric lamps to artificially simulate the natural light received from the sun.

For people with SAD, light therapy can help regulate and restore disrupted circadian rhythms caused by the lack of natural light, providing a non-invasive way to help mitigate the symptoms of SAD, which can include feelings of sadness, decreased energy and changes in sleep patterns and mood.

Despite the potential benefits, however, many people inadvertently misuse SAD lamps, reducing their full effectiveness.

“It sounds like, ‘Oh, you have to sit by a light, and it’ll be better,’ but it’s not as straightforward as that,” Dr. Judith Joseph, a board-certified psychiatrist and clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Langone, told ABC News. “The risk is that you can misuse it.”

ABC News spoke with Joseph and other experts about how people can maximize the effectiveness of lamps to treat SAD. Here are their tips:

1. Ensure the lamp provides 10,000 lux.

Intensity matters when it comes to SAD lamps. Experts recommend opting for a lamp that emits at least 10,000 lux of light — roughly the equivalent of full daylight — when positioned 11 inches away from your face.

Many online retailers may promise that their devices reach 10,000 lux without specifying the effective distance. Users can verify lux on lamps at home by using a mobile phone app that employs the phone’s camera to measure the light’s intensity.

2. Maintain proper distance from the lamp.

While generally safe, prolonged direct exposure to the light source may cause eye discomfort. To avoid this risk, experts say to position the lamp 11 inches away from the face, allowing the light to indirectly reach the eyes.

Incorrect lamp positioning, such as placing it too far away or too close, can prevent users from receiving an effective therapeutic level of light exposure.

3. Use the lamp on a regular schedule.

Establishing a regular pattern of using SAD lamps helps to regulate the body’s internal clock.

Researchers at the Yale Winter Depression Research Clinic suggest using the lamp at the same time each day, before 8 a.m. and for approximately 30 minutes, seven days a week, at 10,000 lux intensity. Using the lamp later in the day can run the risk of impairing the ability to sleep at night, making it more difficult to feel energized and well-rested, according to the clinic.

It is also important to understand that SAD lamps, while a simple treatment option for seasonal affective disorder, shouldn’t serve as a replacement treatment for other mental health disorders.

“If somebody’s really suffering from a major depressive disorder, typically it’s going to take more than a light box to treat,” Dr. Mimi Winsberg, chief medical officer and founder of Brightside Health, a mental health care provider, told ABC News. “I think consulting with a physician or psychiatrist preferably is of value in that situation.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, free, confidential help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call or text the national Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988. Even if you feel like it, you are not alone.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

SHARE NOW