Bright Light Therapy
As the DC surrounding area has just spent the past few weeks digging out from record-breaking snowfall, I thought I’d share with you a new purchase that has been helping combat my own personal struggle with my winter weather woes.
I am a long time sufferer of the winter blues. I’ve never sought an official diagnosis, of what was formerly referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder (currently under the DSM-5 a specifier has been added under major depressive disorder to indicate a seasonal pattern) but I have historically experienced a significant decline in my mood and energy level during the winter months. As I’m sure you could imagine, living in Nebraska for the past five years did very little to help ease my suffering. The winters in Nebraska are brutal. I distinctly remember taking Georgie on a walk in April, and feeling an enormous flood of relief to find that my exposed skin did not immediately sting upon stepping outside. As I walked through my neighborhood I saw children playing. I hadn’t witnessed children playing outside in months. A smile crept across my face and tears began to simultaneously stream down my uncovered cheeks. A mix of relief at being on the cusp of brighter days washed over me, which was immediately followed by a feeling of total discontentment at the thought of these children having just spent one-third of their year indoors.
In an article researchers found that, "women with SAD may be more vulnerable to the amount of light they get, because although they don't spend less time outdoors than other women, they do spend more time outside in the summer, resulting in a larger overall change between seasons."
This description fits me quite well. I am a very blissful person on a sunny day. The sunshine makes me want to twirl in a field of wildflowers and dance like a hippie with a tambourine (exhibit A, see below), as I literally sing Sheryl Crow's Soak up the Sun. My husband has learned to distrust the long-term goals of the summer version of myself. Summer me wants to open up seventeen side businesses and get six-pack abs. Come daylight savings time, the winter version slips on her fuzzy socks, wears a blanket as a robe, and says, “That was cute, but I’ll take it from here.”
The greatest thing for my overall mental balance has honestly been moving to the east coast. For two winters in a row now, I’ve been in awe at the sunshine and moderate temperatures. There is nearly no greater feeling for me than jacket weather in December. Especially when the October snow storms and April 20-degree days are still so fresh in my memory. Recommendations to combat these less extreme winter woes include taking a walk in the morning hours, as even minimal natural light can have a positive effect. Although my symptoms are traditionally less severe, the cold weather of an early morning walk just doesn't have quite the intended effect.
Bright Lights, Big Relief
I’m not sure exactly why I haven’t sought this out sooner. At a recent professional development training, a local mental health care practitioner was singing the praises for bright light therapy, and I decided to bite the bullet. There is article after article that supports bright light therapy as a treatment option for Seasonal Affective Disorder. Like this one from The American Psychological Association (APA), “Bright Lights, Big Relief” which states, “For the estimated half a million people in the United States who may experience winter depression, bright light therapy, known as phototherapy, is now commonly prescribed. During phototherapy, patients sit facing a "light box" with a bank of fluorescent bulbs of up to 10,000 lux total intensity for about a half hour per session throughout their low season.”
After reading reviews, I ordered this one from Amazon. It’s quite large, and my husband doesn’t exactly like the aesthetic of it on my bathroom counter, but I’ve been using it everyday for the past month or so, and it can go in storage soon enough.
The MayoClinic suggests that in addition to Seasonal Affective Disorder, bright light therapy is also used as a treatment for: Types of depression that don't occur seasonally, Jet lag, Sleep disorders, Adjusting to a nighttime work schedule, and Dementia. Obviously you should consult with your physician prior to pursuing a purchase of your own bright light. The Mayo Clinic reports, “Light therapy is generally safe. If side effects occur, they're usually mild and short lasting. They may include: Eyestrain, Headache, Nausea, Irritability or agitation, Mania, euphoria, hyperactivity or agitation associated with bipolar disorder.” I have indeed experienced a bit of insomnia when using it too late in the day, so you've been warned!
I know I've spoken quite light heartedly about this topic, but depression of any kind is absolutely no joke. Seasonal Affective Disorder, or rather "Major Depressive Disorder with a seasonal specifier" is more than just what I've referred to as the winter blues. This is NOT something that you should ever feel the need to just grin and bear. There are so many treatment options available to help you find relief including light therapy, traditional therapy, medication, and much more. Life is far too short to spend a portion of your year suffering, The Mayo Clinic states, "It's normal to have some days when you feel down. But if you feel down for days at a time and you can't get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy, see your doctor. This is especially important if your sleep patterns and appetite have changed or if you feel hopeless, think about suicide, or turn to alcohol for comfort or relaxation." If you or someone you know is exhibiting some or all of these symptoms. Please tell someone! There is absolutely no shame in seeking assistance in getting relief during your rough season! Let someone help you find relief until we can all be dancing like hippies in the sunshine once again.