Light Lamps for Seasonal Depression

A friend recently confided that she has felt depressed every winter since I have known her (about 15 years). Since we are so close, the fact that she had not shared this information seemed indicative of the stigma that still exists around mental health.

It also suggested to me that many people still don’t perceive symptoms of depression as treatable. This includes educated, English-speaking, high achievers like my friend, who would hypothetically have access to better health information.

Let’s talk about mental health.

male wearing a sweatshirt that says "boys get sad too"
Photo by Nathan McDine.

Today, we’ll be focusing on mental health in wintertime.

On top of the mental health struggles that college students usually face, and in addition to the mental strain that covid-19 has caused, the low light in winter can make people feel even worse. As a reminder, mental health can affect anyone and is not a sign of weakness.

I encourage anyone who needs professional mental health support to seek the resources they need. That being said, if you are not ready to try therapy, or if you already on medication or in therapy and need some extra help, here are some suggestions that are backed by science.

This blog is not a substitute for appropriate medical care. Make sure to see your primary care doctor, LCSW, psychologist or psychiatrist to discuss the treatments that are available to you. As always, if you are having a psychiatric emergency (including thoughts of self-harm, suicide, or harming others), call your local emergency number or go to your local emergency department. There is always help available.

Light Lamps for Seasonal Depression

My friend told me that light lamps sound nuts to her. The idea that you could recover from profound mood issues by shining a light in your face seemed improbable at best.

However, use of powerful full-spectrum light is established in the traditional medical community as a way to treat seasonal affective disorder, which refers to sadness, exhaustion, appetite changes and sleep changes that are a big struggle for some people during winter.

These lamps used to be very expensive (several hundred dollars each) and were often not covered by insurance. Luckily, the cost of these lamps has decreased and they are now very affordable.

What brand of light lamp works for seasonal depression?

I asked a psychiatrist and a psychologist in my social circle, and they both recommended lamps by Verilux. The official “dose” is 10,000 lux (a measure of brightness) for half an hour, though some people need more, and some people need less. Read the descriptions and choose one that is capable of 10,000 lux.

You might need this if:

  • You tend to feel down in winter
  • You live in a place that’s dark in winter
  • You live in a place where the light changes in winter and days are shorter, even if it seems sunny out. I’m from Chicago, so North Carolina winters seem super bright to me, but the psychologist I asked said that many people in North Carolina still have seasonal affective symptoms in winter time due to the shorter days and lower light levels.

How to use a light lamp for seasonal depression:

  • Don’t stare into the lamp. Instead, aim it at your face and then look at something else. For example, set it on your desk about 10 inches away. While it’s on, you can read a book, have tea, or work on your computer.
  • Make sure to use it in the morning. The lamp can affect your sleep cycle, which is beneficial for those who find they are sleeping excessively in winter.  If you use it later in the day, it can cause insomnia.
  • Try to use it at the same time each day. For example, if you get up at 9 am, try to use it at 9 am every day.
  • Ease into it. Start with 5 minutes in the morning and see how you tolerate it. If it’s not causing problems such as anxiety or headaches, work up to 30 minutes a day (if you feel great with less minutes, that’s fine!).
  • Be patient and consistent. It can take several weeks of daily light lamp use to feel better.
  • Remember your other options. Some people with seasonal depression take medication too, so it’s important to see a doctor if you’re not feeling better.

Caution: Don’t use a light lamp if you have retinal disorders because intense light is not good for eyes that are already damaged (ask your doctor if you’re not sure).

Light lamps are usually not good for people with bipolar disorder because it may trigger mania. That being said, if you have bipolar disorder and you also have seasonal affective disorder, ask your psychiatrist to help you balance these two conditions appropriately.

Light lamps can cause insomnia, anxiety, or headaches, even in healthy people, but the effects will usually wear off by the next day. Side effects are usually a sign you have used the lamp for too long. If you are still interested, start very low (like 5 minutes a day) and see how you do).