December 11, 2017

Seasonal Depression – It’s All About the Light

Seasonal depression also called seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a condition that usually brings about a depressed state during the same season every year.  Usually this occurs during the winter months which gives it the common name of ‘winter depression’ or ‘winter blues’, however it occurs in a small group of those afflicted with this disorder in late spring or early summer.   If the affect is felt during the spring or summer time the condition is reverse seasonal affective disorder also called Summer SAD.   While not technically a mood disorder it is considered a subset of bipolar disorder.

The use of light therapy is one of the best and most effective treatments for winter depression.  It can have a marked improvement on a person’s mood and depressive affects.  Before we take a look at how light therapy can help, it’s important to take a brief look at what seasonal depression actually is, its cause and how it manifests itself.

Symptoms of Seasonal Depression

Seasonal depression occurs in all age groups including children and tends to affect women more often than men.   While the specific cause of winter seasonal depression is not known it is believed to be linked to the lack of light.  Also, experts believe that a person is also more likely to have it if a close relative or family member also has the condition.

The main winter seasonal affective disorder symptoms include:

 

  • Feeling sad, lonely, hopeless and/or depressed
  • Increased need for sleep, fatigue
  • Change in appetite including a craving for carbohydrates, weight gain
  • Irritability (frequent in children)
  • Decrease in sex drive
  • Loss of interest and enjoyment in normal activities previously enjoyed

The main summer seasonal affective disorder symptoms include:

 

  • insomnia
  • decreased appetite with accompanying weight loss
  • increased anxiety (often manifested in irritability in children)

In severe cases of major depression – whether winter or summer depression – a person may experience thoughts of suicide.

Treatment of Seasonal Depression

There are different treatments for classic (winter-based) seasonal affective disorder and summer depression since winter depression is linked to too little light and summer depression is linked to too much bright light.   The treatment for both usually involves occupational therapy.   For those who suffer from reverse seasonal affective disorder, light therapy is usually not prescribed.

There are many different treatments used to help heal this disorder but the four most widely utilized types of treatments are light therapy, medication, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and various other forms of psychotherapy.  A person’s doctor, health care provider or occupational therapist can help the patient best determine which therapy or combination of therapy is right for him

Light Therapy

Light therapy involves the patient being exposed to bright light for a specific period of time each day, usually about 20 minutes.   The time each patient needs varies depending on the individual and severity of the depression.  The bright light is provided by a light box that specifically generates a certain amount of light that is used to simulate sunlight.

SAD lamp phototherapy utilizes full spectrum lighting.  Many clinic experts believe that bright light therapy for SAD is only necessary during the winter months when the person is most likely to suffer from the condition, not year round.

Ironically, the light emitted from these SAD light boxes is commonly called happy light.

Although the use of seasonal affective disorder light therapy is widely used in the treatment of seasonal depression it isn’t effective for all patients.  According to a Harvard Mental Health Paper, light therapy only works for between 50-80% of all who are treated for this condition.   Those who are helped by this phototherapy usually see some improvement during the first week of use and then continued improvement if the therapy continues every day.

Medication

Anti-depressant medication is the next most popular treatment for seasonal depression.  It helps reduce the effect of the depression and its symptoms such as lack of energy.  It should be noted that anti-depressants just help with the depression and don’t treat the underlying issue of the seasonal affective disorder.

Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy

This cognitive therapy takes the approach of focusing the patient’s awareness in a non-judgmental manner on the issues related to SAD, to accept these and let them go.  The focus is not on dwelling on how bad the symptoms may be or the problems associated with seasonal depression but rather on distancing oneself mentally from these issues through a series of self-awareness exercises and meditation.  Usually this is done in group therapy, however it is possible for this to be undertaken in one-on-one counseling.

Other forms of Psychotherapy

There are a variety of other forms of psychotherapy that are often used either in conjunction with one of the other treatment methods mentioned above or in some cases on its own.

Some of these treatment methods include group therapy, therapy that helps a patient develop coping skills for this disorder, also called cognitive behavioral therapy, positive therapy and problem solving therapy.

Conclusion

It is usually recommended that light therapy and/or antidepressant medications are utilized in the treatment of seasonal affective disorder.  While light therapy doesn’t work for everyone for those it does work for it offers a great option that helps treat the underlying disorder.  Seasonal depression can be treated so help should be sought whenever symptoms appear because if left untreated the effect of the depression can grow into a more severe depression.

 

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