I freely admit that winter is my least favorite time of year. I don’t mind it so much in December and January, when I welcome the excuse to hibernate, cook hearty foods, and do more reading. But by mid-February, crankiness sets in. I’ve always chocked this shift from tolerance to twitchiness to the gradual build-up and onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder—a sort of mini-depression induced by a lack of sunshine experienced by an estimated 11 million Americans each winter. To compensate, I always planned a late-February/early-March visit to see my grandmother in Florida—which provided a mega-dose of sunshine and could carry me until April.
This year, however, I was crabby by Christmas. I noticed that little things—my husband’s socks on the floor, a harmless comment my babysitter made—set my jaw on edge. I was also not sleeping well, waking up several times a night and never seeming to settle down in to deep sleep. One thing that’s different about this year is that I am pregnant, so hormones may be playing a role. But I also moved my workspace from a sunny living room in to a windowless closet. Each morning I’ve been toddling off to my office until until about 3:30, when I head outside or turn on a workout DVD to get a little exercise in before the sitter leaves for the day. I thought my routine was amazingly efficient. What I didn’t realize was that I was almost completely depriving myself of natural sunlight.
Adventures in light therapy
I only connected this lack of light and my downturn in mood by accident: As I was researching an article for work, I discovered a recent Canadian study that compared the effectiveness of light therapy (sitting in front of a blue light for a set amount of time each day) and anti-depressants in people with Seasonal Affective Disorder. The study found that light therapy provided as much relief of symptoms as anti-depressants, and in much less time (after only one week). That study planted the seed for light therapy in my brain, but I didn’t consider it for myself at first: Instead, I bought a light therapy box for my Dad for Christmas, as he also struggles with SAD.
Once Dad and I gathered for our annual holiday visit, he mentioned that he had moved his workspace from a dark upstairs room to his light-strewn living room, and he had noticed a big uptick in his usual winter mood. Laughing at the coincidence, I told him I had recently had the opposite experience as I handed him his gift. He took one look at it and said the best gift I could give him would be to keep and use the light box for myself. I obliged, and I’ve been using my little blue light every morning for the last month—I set the timer on the device to 40 minutes and turn it on each morning when I first sit down at my desk. There are so many things I love about it that I wanted to share my experience, in case any of you are tossing and turning at night and muttering to yourself during the day, counting the weeks until spring.
My first reaction to the light was surprise at just how bright it is—it is just this side of distracting. Yet I quickly adjusted to the intensity, and noticed even on that first day that when the light clicks off after the allotted time, I feel a tiny pang of loss. I’ve been using that time to catch up on emails, check my bank accounts, and get my daily Facebook fix—so part of that feeling is a wake-up call that it’s time to get to work (boo hoo hoo). But part of it is instinctual, as if I know deep down knows that the light is providing something I need, and when it’s gone, I feel that loss.
Benefits of light
I’ve also been noticing longer-term effects: After four or five days, I started sleeping much more soundly—a good 7 – 8 hours a night with minimal tossing and turning (quite an accomplishment for a pregnant lady). And while I’m not exactly running down the street singing “The Sound of Music,” I don’t notice the socks, and I’m back to appreciating my sitter for all the loving care she gives my daughter.
On the negative side, it’s sad that I’ve become reliant on yet another electronic device and my “screen time” each day has risen—even though this is benevolent screen time. And I have caught myself thinking, “I can’t go on a walk this morning, I haven’t done my light therapy yet.” Using light therapy as an excuse to not go outside and expose myself to natural light is totally counterintuitive, I realize. But for roughly $150, I’d say the investment of both money and time in my happiness is worth it.
If you’re intrigued, Gaiam has several light therapy boxes to choose from.
And if you’ve tried light therapy for yourself, what was your experience?
* There is a bit of science to when and how long you use a light box—you want to time your sessions correctly as the light emitted is stimulating and can interfere with your sleep cycles if you expose yourself to it too late in the day, and depending on the severity of your symptoms you may need more or less time in front of the device. I visited http://www.golite.philips.com/ to do an online assessment of how long I should use the light and at what time.