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Understanding Seasonal Depression

Seasonal Depression Treatments

Drug therapy and talk therapy are two treatments commonly used to manage many forms of depression, including seasonal affective disorder. For example, selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a type of antidepressant, may help restore the balance of serotonin, a neurotransmitter, in the brain. Talk therapy, specifically cognitive behavior therapy, may be helpful for SAD sufferers who could benefit from changing their perspective about winter (or summer), and working with a mental health professional may encourage the development of a preventative plan.

In addition to traditional treatments for depression, SAD sufferers also often find light therapy an effective way to relieve their symptoms.

Light therapy, also called phototherapy, is a common treatment for seasonal affective disorder. This type of treatment makes sense as first-line therapy against SAD, since winter depression naturally lifts with the arrival of longer spring days, and light therapy mimics those longer days during the short winter months. There are two basic types of light therapy: a light box and dawn simulation.

Light boxes look like table or floor lamps. Most light boxes on the market right now provide white-light therapy with fluorescent or incandescent bulbs or light-emitting diodes (LEDs), although that may change as emerging research suggests blue light may have the most promise in relieving symptoms of depression.

To benefit from the use of a light box, it's best to use it in the morning, just after waking, when it can most effectively impact the level of melatonin production in your body. For a light box to be most effective, you need to look indirectly at the light -- don't look directly at the light, and don't nap during light therapy. You won't get the same benefits if the light is only on your skin.

How long you use your light box each day will depend on your symptoms, how strong the light is and how close you sit to the light box. Sitting less than 2 feet (0.6 meters) from a box with intense light may only require a daily 30-minute session, whereas sitting a greater distance away from the lamp or using a weaker light may require multi-hour sessions every day.

There are also light boxes that are dawn simulators. These turn on in the morning before you wake and gradually brighten to simulate dawn breaking. This type of light therapy may be helpful in resetting both melatonin production and your sleep patterns.

Light therapy has only a few mild side effects. Headaches are the most common, followed by eye strain, especially during the first days of treatment. Some people report nausea and irritability. Sleep problems may occur if treatment is given late in the day, and people with bipolar disorder have an increased risk of mania. Light boxes filter out damaging ultraviolet (UV) light, making therapy safe for your skin and eyes.

It's estimated that as many as 50 to 80 percent of people diagnosed with SAD will find relief with light therapy, as long as they stay vigilant about getting their daily light [source: National Alliance on Mental Illness]. For those who need additional help, antidepressant medications and cognitive behavior therapy are often effective co-treatments to light therapy.