‘Winter blues’ season is here: Experts share tips for using the lamp to help with seasonal affective disorder

The “winter blues” season is upon us.

As our exposure to sunlight decreases during the winter months, millions of Americans suffer each year from the effects of seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, a form of depression that for some can appear like clockwork every year.

SAD is defined as a type of depression that comes and goes in seasons, usually coming on in late fall and early winter and disappearing during the spring and summer. SAD can also occur during the summer season, but this type is less common than during the winter seasons, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Since the diagnosis of SAD appeared in the 1980s, the mainstay of treatment has focused on the one thing most of us don’t get enough of in the winter: sunlight. One home treatment option, light therapy, works by using electric lamps to artificially mimic the natural light received from the sun.

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For people with SAD, light therapy can help regulate and restore disrupted circadian rhythms caused by a lack of natural light, providing a non-invasive way to help reduce the symptoms of SAD, which can include feelings of sadness, decreased energy, and changes in sleep patterns and mood.

Despite the potential benefits, however, many people inadvertently use SAD lamps, reducing their absolute effectiveness.

“It’s like, ‘Oh, you have to sit next to a light, and it’s going to be better,’ but it’s not as straightforward,” Dr. Judith Joseph, a board-certified psychiatrist and clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Langone, told ABC News. “The danger is that you can use it in the wrong way.”

ABC News spoke with Joseph and other experts about how people can take advantage of the effectiveness of lamps in treating SAD. Here are their tips.

3 tips from the experts on how to use SAD lamp therapy

1. Make sure the lamp gives off 10,000 lux.

Intensity matters when it comes to SAD lamps. Experts recommend choosing a lamp that emits at least 10,000 lux of light which is roughly equivalent to full sunlight when positioned 11 inches away from your face.

Many online retailers may promise that their devices reach 10,000 lux without specifying the effective distance. Users can verify lux in home lamps by using a mobile phone app that uses the phone’s camera to measure light intensity.

2. Keep the right distance from the lamp.

Although generally safe, prolonged direct exposure to the light source may cause eye discomfort. To avoid this risk, experts say to position the lamp 11 inches away from the face, allowing the light not to reach the eyes directly.

Improper positioning of the lamp, such as placing it too far or too close, can prevent users from receiving an effective therapeutic level of light exposure.

3. Use the lamp on a regular schedule.

Establishing a regular pattern of using SAD lamps helps regulate the body’s internal clock.

Researchers at the Yale Winter Depression Research Clinic suggest using the lamp at the same time each day, before 8 am and for about 30 minutes, seven days a week, at 10,000 lux intensity. Using a lamp later in the day can run the risk of impairing the ability to sleep at night, making it harder to feel energized and rest well, according to the clinic.

It is also important to understand that SAD lamps, while a simple treatment option for seasonal affective disorder, should not serve as a substitute treatment for other mental health disorders.

“If someone is really suffering from a major depressive disorder, it will usually take more than a light box to treat,” said Dr. Mimi Winsberg, chief medical officer and founder of Brightside Health, a mental health care provider, to ABC News. “I think consulting a physician or psychiatrist would be better in that situation.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, free, confidential help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call or text the national Suicide Prevention Lifeline & Crisis Lifeline at 988. Even if you feel like it, you’re not alone.

Sasha Vereecken RN is a medical student from Texas and a member of the ABC News Medical Unit.

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