Counseling Center

Light Therapy for SAD

Light therapy for Seasonal Affective Disorder is available at the Ethnic Cultural Center (ECC) without an appointment or at Hall Health after a brief intake appointment.

To use the light therapy lamps in the ECC, students can go to the Computer Lab on the first floor or the Serenity Space and do not need to sign-up or check-in at the front desk.

There are additional lamps in the Wellness Room at the ECC which can be checked out for 30 minutes of use.

What is S.A.D.?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a pattern of seasonal depression experienced by otherwise healthy and happy people.  Typically, fall and winter bring “down” feelings not explained by day to day experiences.  It is estimated that as many as 20-30% of the population living at latitudes similar to Seattle’s may experience at least some SAD symptoms. The most typical symptoms of SAD are:

  • Mood changes
        • Increased sadness
        • Higher irritability
        • Greater anxiety
  • Appetite changes
        • Increased appetite
        • Craving of carbohydrates and sweets
  • Weight increases
  • Sleep and activity changes
        • Increased sleep duration
        • Lower quality of rest
        • Daytime tiredness
  • Social and interpersonal strain
  • Menstrual difficulties

Mood lifts with onset of spring

Because of the seasonal pattern and the fact that SAD occurs more frequently in northern latitudes, it is thought to be caused by the body’s reactions to reduced natural light. The mechanism mostly widely thought to be responsible is altered production or uptake of serotonin in the brain. Other possibilities include abnormally delayed circadian rhythms, or abnormal patterns of melatonin secretions. Regardless of the cause, light therapy has been widely demonstrated to be an effective treatment for SAD.

How do I use light therapy for SAD?

Light therapy requires very bright light. Light box used for SAD treatment produce 10,000-lux. This is approximately 20 times brighter than normal room lighting. Please see the directions about how to use the light therapy box that are located on the other displayed handout.

At this light level, 20-30 minutes a day is an appropriate treatment. Most persons who benefit from light therapy experience positive changes within two days to two weeks of daily treatment. If symptoms do not improve, increasing the treatment up to 45 minutes a day, or using briefer periods twice a day, may be worth trying. Daily, or almost daily, treatment is likely to have the best effect. Since symptoms may return after cessation of treatment, many individuals experiencing SAD  find repeated treatment periods during the fall-winter season most effective. There is some research evidence to suggest that light exposure in early morning may be more effective than afternoon exposure. It is best to avoid exposure to bright lights in the late evening as this may shift the timing of your sleep period.

What about side effects or dangers?

Side effects are uncommon. There have been some reports of eye dryness. Reducing the period of treatment or sitting farther from the light will usually eliminate such effects. If you have a history of visual difficulties beyond the need for ordinary corrective lenses or if you have difficulty with photosensitivity, please consult a doctor before using light therapy.

How effective is light therapy for SAD.?

Most studies have shown that about 75% of individuals experiencing SAD show improvement when using light therapy. Though results cannot be guaranteed, this is a high success rate compared to treatments available for other forms of depression. You can increase your chances of success by adding some of the following to your self-care plan:

  • Take daily walks outdoors
  • Set a timer to turn a light on early in your bedroom, or try a dawn simulator for a more gradual artificial dawn
  • Increase aerobic exercise, particularly under bright lighting conditions
  • Take opportunities to travel south during the winter season
  • Take steps to manage your stress
  • Consider counseling to help with self-esteem issues and stress management
  • Consider counseling or medication to manage other forms of depression

Can light therapy help with other concerns?

It can be difficult to distinguish SAD from other forms of depression.  Most of the symptoms, except for the seasonal pattern, are very similar.  Although light therapy is unlikely to cause any harm, it is also unlikely to be helpful in treating non-seasonal depression.  You can request an intake appointment at the Counseling Center (206-543-1240) if you would like to talk with a counselor about whether counseling could be helpful.