A Light Box for Seasonal Affective Disorder


Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal, MD, the first scientist to describe seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and pioneer of the light box treatment for it, is among the twenty-eight million Americans that suffer from the illness. In his 2006 book “Winter Blues,” Dr. Rosenthal estimates that over eighty percent of people with SAD benefit from using a light box. Using a light box (light therapy) remains the mainline treatment for SAD. To achieve optimal results with a light box, following intensity, duration, and timing guidelines are important.

SAD and Light Boxes Explained

A type of depression associated with seasonal changes in daylight, SAD typically occurs in fall and winter and abates by spring and summer. Both nonseasonal depression and SAD have the same symptoms. However, social withdrawal, hypersomnia (excessive daytime sleepiness), hyperphagia (increased appetite–especially for carbohydrates) and listlessness prove more common in SAD.

People with SAD commonly use a light box to treat their symptoms. A typical light box is a metal or plastic fixture approximately two feet long and eighteen inches high. It contains white fluorescent light bulbs set behind a plastic diffusing screen. The diffusing screen filters out most ultraviolet (UV) rays from the bulbs.

How to Use a Light Box

Most SAD sufferers experience maximum benefit if they use a light box when SAD symptoms first begin to appear (for most sufferers this occurs in early fall). As days get shorter in the winter, increasing the duration of treatment can help alleviate worsening symptoms. Most people continue using their light boxes until spring when daylight lasts longer, is more intense and, by itself sustains good mood and energy. Regardless of the season, many people with SAD experience symptoms during stretches of cloudy and gloomy days. Using a light box can help alleviate symptoms during any time of year.

Side Effects

Reduce common side effects of eyestrain, headache, agitation, nausea, vomiting, irritability, fatigue, sleep problems, dry mouth and mania by sitting further away from the light box and reducing the duration of light box sessions

Consult your doctor first before using a light box if you have light-sensitive skin, take medications that react with sunlight or have an eye condition that makes your eyes vulnerable to light damage.

Safety and Efficacy

Not all light boxes have received testing for safety and quality standards.

Effective light boxes provide high amounts of light intensity. The greater the amount of lux (a measure of light intensity) the less treatment time needed. If you spend forty minutes using a 2,500 lux light box, you may get the same benefits from only 15 minutes treatment with a 10,000lux light.

Safe light boxes contain a plastic diffuser screen. These screens minimize or eliminate eyestrain and damage by filtering out most harmful UV rays.

Light Box Adjuncts

Using a light box is an effective treatment for most people who have SAD. However, not everyone experiences 100 percent success with light therapy. In addition to using a light box, most people use other strategies to obtain relief from their symptoms. In “Winter Blues,” Dr. Rosenthal reviews the most effective and empirically validated adjuncts. Besides a light box, medications (Wellbutrin XL has been evidenced to prevent SAD symptoms for some sufferers), exercise, psychotherapy (particularly cognitive-behavioral therapy) and negative-air ionizers are also used to obtain relief from SAD symptoms.

About this Author

A former corporate health coach, Charles Yin has counseling experience in obesity management, and chronic mental illness. He graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in psychology from Carleton College. Yin completed one year of doctoral studies at Azusa Pacific University (APU) and is currently an MFT trainee at APU.