Mental Illness

Winter Blues, My Ass: How I Survive My Seasonal Affective Disorder

Winter sucks. If you’re a person who enjoys the bitter cold, the short days, and the absurd amounts of various forms of water falling from the sky, I envy you. I live in a world with four seasons: spring, summer, autumn, and crushing depression. Most of the time, my depression and anxiety are well-managed under the supervision of my doctor, and with a lot of experience and patience in dealing with the daily crap that comes up. As soon as the temperature drops and the sun decides to hibernate for four months, though, all bets are off. Everything is bleak. My mood never gets any higher than “meh.” I take to my bed like a Victorian lady of the house. It’s like clockwork: it starts around Thanksgiving, and by the time February rolls around, I’m gazing at pictures of tropical islands with a mixture of wistfulness and utter despair.

My doctor has been a proponent of light therapy for years. I was skeptical about how shining a bright light in my face every morning could possibly make a difference in my mood, and I didn’t really have the spare cash to spend on a theory, so I’d been putting it off. For my birthday this year, though, I got a fair amount in Amazon gift cards, and so I started my research on light therapy lamps (also sometimes called light therapy boxes). You can’t use just any lamp for light therapy; it needs to be a certain type of lamp, with a certain brightness (at least 10,000 lux seems to be the standard), and used in a certain way. After lots and lots of research, and reading reviews and information from every source from the Mayo Clinic to depression forum threads devoted to reviewing the different options, I decided on my light therapy box. It cost a little under $100, and seemed to meet all of the most common suggestions.

I set up my lamp on a small shelf on my computer desk, so that it was at the level recommended in the directions that came with the light; positioned slightly above eye level less than a foot away from my face. The first few days, I started slowly, as suggested, with 15 minutes first thing in the morning. I didn’t feel much differently, but noticed that the first two days, I had what could most accurately be described as manic episodes. Nothing serious enough to concern me for more than the length of the episode, but enough that I took note. A slightly more involved internet search showed me that hypomania is a fairly common side effect when you first use the lamp. After those first few days, though, I didn’t experience any further episodes. I do recommend that anyone trying a light therapy lamp do their research so that they’re aware that there are a number of common side effects within the first few days.

I’ve been using the light every day for about three months. I’ve increased my time to a half hour every morning, first thing, while I’m having my coffee. I’ve noticed a definite improvement in my overall mood, as well having a far more regular sleep schedule than I normally do. Those close to me have remarked that they can see a difference from my usual winter disposition, and that, to me, is the most important measure of whether it works. Often when you’re mucking about within your own moods, it’s difficult to see changes; but others observing you from the outside are generally in a better position to tell whether things seem any better. This winter has been particularly awful, with bad weather after bad weather and life in general just being difficult to get through, but my mood has remained fairly stable. I wouldn’t say that light therapy works miracles, but it has definitely made a discernible difference, and when you’re in the deepest despair of seasonal depression, every little thing helps.

The standard disclaimers apply here: I am in no way a medical professional, my experience is purely anecdotal, and your doctor really is the best place to start if you’re having any depression issues; seasonal or otherwise. If you’re considering trying light therapy, though, I’ve really found it to be a far more useful method of dealing with my SAD than my usual “do my best to sleep straight through from November to March” routine.

Image Credit from Chamomile on Morgue File

6 replies on “Winter Blues, My Ass: How I Survive My Seasonal Affective Disorder”

I highly recommend light therapy for SAD – my mother and I both have it, although she has it to a much higher degree, and that light helped make winter so much more bearable. I moved out a couple years ago, farther North to basically-the-tundra, Alberta, and I miss having it so much.

This is really cool, especially considering that many people don’t want to get on an SSRI when they are experiencing a temporary problem like SAD (even when that temporary problem is debilitating.) Light therapy could be a really viable alternative, if it works. I haven’t heard much about it either way, and I have never used a light box or anything like it. Maybe I should get one!

I always think it’s amazing how many environmental things affect our health and moods.

I don’t have SAD, but occasionally get insomnia. I bought one of those lamps that does a sunset at night and sunrise in the morning… and the crazy thing is, it worked! I now turn all the lights on first thing in the morning (which before I resisted, since darkness is kind of like sleep, right?) and it helps me wake up so much it’s not even funny.

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