Working on Wellness: Seasonal Affective Disorder and Light Therapy

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By Liza Little, Director of Counseling Services

USM Health and Counseling Services staff see many students who complain of “winter blues” or “winter depression.”. This is also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.). S.A.D. is a pattern of mood changes, occurring at the same time each year; it usually begins in the late fall to early winter months and ends in the Spring. S.A.D. occurs more frequently in northern latitudes, and it is thought that it develops as a response to the to lack of natural light.

Typical Symptoms of S.A.D.: Symptoms vary from person to person but often include increase in sadness, higher irritability, increased anxiety, eating more and craving carbohydrates, an increase in weight, sleeping more but waking tired, lack of energy, problems with concentration and often relationship conflict.

How is S.A.D. diagnosed? Physicians and nurse practitioners and mental health providers can diagnose S.A.D. based on criteria developed by the American Psychiatric Association. Many people think they have S.A.D. but don’t go to a professional for a diagnosis. You don’t have to see a practitioner before you try light therapy.

How Can S.A.D. be Treated? Research shows that light therapy or exposure to full spectrum light is an effective treatment and is usually administered by using a light box. Light boxes are a set of fluorescent bulbs and tubes that are covered with a plastic screen that helps block out potentially harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. Depending on how severely a person is affected, other treatments are helpful in combination with light therapy including psychotherapy, dietary changes, regular exercise, and the use of antidepressant medications.

USM Light Boxes: USM libraries in Portland, Gorham and Lewiston have light boxes that can be checked out at the front desk for use in the library while you study. Thee light boxes come with directions and are easy to use.  Light boxes can also be purchased at Walgreens and Target for about $50.

How Does One Use Light Therapy?

Intensity: you need to use a light with the right intensity. These light boxes produce between 2,500 and 10,000 lux (lux is a measure of the amount of light you receive at a specific distance from a light source). Typical therapy is at 10,000 lux. The light in the average living room is less than 100 lux, while a bright sunny day may register 100,000 lux. You sit in front of the light box (about 23 inches away is optimal) with your eyes open. The light box sits at eye level on an angle to provide the most comfort and decrease glare. Reading at a desk with a light box on or just sitting in a chair facing the light box is all that is needed. It is not recommended to stare at the light.

Duration: Therapy usually involves daily sessions ranging from 15-20 minutes to one hour; most sessions last about 20-30 minutes. When starting treatment, it is suggested you start with a smaller block of time and build your exposure over time.

Timing: For most people, light therapy is best used in the morning, after first waking up. The most effective combination of intensity, duration and timing varies from person to person, staff from the health and counseling can assist in guiding you in making appropriate adjustments.

Risks of Light Therapy: Some people complain of eye strain, headache or nausea. Side effects usually go away on their own within a few days of starting light therapy but you can also manage these effects by reducing treatment time, moving farther away from your light, or taking breaks during your session.

Effectiveness of Light Therapy: Most studies show that about 75 percent of individuals who experience S.A.D. experience some improvement with light therapy. Most people see improvement after a couple of days to a few weeks. If a person doesn’t see improvement with a few weeks they should consult Health and Counseling for a follow up.

University Health and Counseling Services: 156 Upton Hall, Gorham, 105 Payson Hall, Portland, Student Affairs, Lewiston Campus. Call 780-4050.

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