How to Use a Light Box for Depression

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One of the greatest breakthroughs for people suffering from depression was the discovery that light levels can have a dramatic effect on depression symptoms, and that some depressed individuals are legitimately more prone to depression in the winter (seasonal affective disorder or SAD).

It was then discovered that the same light that was lacking in the winter months could be simulated using specially-constructed light boxes. These are now commonly prescribed and available. Knowing how to use a light box for depression is a valuable tool for anyone suffering from SAD.

Seasonal Light Deficiencies

On a bright day, light from a large, south facing window can be over a thousand times brighter than most office or home lighting. Unfortunately, in the winter, there is still not enough light from the outside, and so the fluorescent or incandescent bulbs are the only light source we have, and they're not enough.

Light boxes, specially built and fitted with high output light bulb pick up the slack and emit more light and at the right color "temperature". Essentially, they can help trick the body into believing it's receiving enough sunlight in the day. This, in turn, has been shown to lower the incidence of depression in the winter months.

Evidence

There is plenty of research that shows using a light box is better than nothing, but many don't know there is also work being done to show that sometimes it's a better therapy than antidepressants. One such study in Canada showed that not only did patients respond better in the long run to a light box than to fluoxetine (Prozac), they began responding more quickly, too.

Placing the Box

So where should you put your box? This turns out to be an important question. You should place the light so that it angles down into your eyes. Yes, you have to place it above eye-level. Remember, you're trying to simulate the sun, and it turns out the receptors that your eyes use to regulate mood are designed to receive light only when it's coming down, as though out of the sky.

When to Use Your Box

Just as there are question over which box to pick and where to put it, there is no standard agreement on when to use it. The answer may also differ depending on what your goals are. Because it simulates daylight, a light box can be used to change your sleep timing, even if you don't have depression.

Research suggests that if you are using the box for winter depression or SAD, morning use is better. Most studies say that using a light box in the evening has no effect whatsoever.

What time of morning is also important, though. Generally speaking, the later in the day you feel most active, the later you can see benefits from a light box each morning. So, if you're a night owl who usually goes to bed at 11 pm or midnight, you can get away with using your light box at 8 or 9 in the morning. On the other hand, if you're a "morning person", you should use it closer to 5 or 6 am to get the full benefit.

Conclusions

As with most medical questions, if you have severe depression, or you suspect a light box is not helping, you may require stronger treatments. A professional can help determine the best treatment options for you, but even simply knowing how to use a light box for depression is enough to make you feel more secure in your treatment choices.

 
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