Good evening! Hope you’re well and have been enjoying the sunshine?
I’ve touched on how to manage symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and Winter Blues briefly in ‘Where to start’. As promised in that post, I’m working my way through the ‘What, Why, Who, Where, When and How’ of SAD in more detailed posts. So, this is the big ‘How’. “Finally” – I hear you say?!
This turned into a really long post, so I’ve split it into four parts, to make it more digestable – although they’re still long! I’ll add links at the end to the other parts as I post them. These posts are based on my own personal experience of living with SAD; I’ll signpost you to quality information available on the web if you want to do further reading.
So you’ve got a fairly good idea that you suffer from either SAD or Winter Blues – now what? How do you manage the symptoms so that you can get back to being you? Or a slightly more recognisable version of you, at least?
First the bad news, to get it over with: there is no one universal, this-will-definitely-work-for-you treatment for SAD or Winter Blues. You can’t permanently ‘treat’ these conditions in the traditional sense; unfortunately you can’t be cured of SAD. It is really about managing your symptoms with daily treatment when you feel you need it.
OK, so now that’s out of the way – the good news! According to the SAD Association, 85% of people will find some relief of their symptoms by using light therapy regularly, from the onset of symptoms (usually late September) until the time their symptoms normally disappear (for many, this is often late March/early April).
SAD Lights/Lamps are very bright lights that simulate the level of light you would get on a clear spring morning. They are highly recommended for managing SAD symptoms.
Light is measured in lux. A minimum of 2,500 lux output is recommended for treating SAD symptoms, but a brighter, 10,000 lux light will enable you to sit further away, or reduce your treatment time. The newer LED lights are often a lower intensity at 2,500 lux, but they contain more blue light, so can be as effective as a 10,000 lux light. Normal light bulbs, or even ‘daylight bulbs’, are not considered strong enough to treat SAD - 2,500 lux is roughly five times brighter than a well-lit office.
You can do other activities, like reading or watching TV while you’re having your light treatment; you don’t look into the light, it just needs to reach your eyes. How close you need to sit and for how long depends on the strength of your light and how severe your symptoms are. If you like to sit further away from your light, you’ll need a longer treatment time. The manufacturer of your light will give you an idea of typical treatment time; for example the light may be 10,000 lux and will take 30 minutes at 30cm (about arm’s length).
I now have two lights. I know – I’m greedy! ;) My big old 7,000 lux one lives at home and was about £70. I’ve had it since I was diagnosed in 2003 and it’s from Tchibo, which is unfortunately no longer trading in the UK. It’s similar in style to Lumie’s Arabica. This light has served me very well; I have my breakfast and watch the news while sitting in front of it. However, I was finding that I didn’t have enough time to sit in front of it to receive a full treatment.
So last November, I invested in a Lumie LED SAD Light Plus, which is made by Lumie for Boots. [update Mar 14: Lumie seem to have stopped making these, and the Zip, but you can take a look at Lumie's light therapy products, and the desklamp or brightspark might suit you.] My light sits on my desk at work and is about the size and weight of a paperback novel. What’s great about this is that I can put it away in my desk drawer when it’s not in use, and if I happen to travel somewhere, I can easily take it with me.
Before I bought this light, I did consider how I’d feel about having it on my desk, with colleagues coming in to see me to discuss projects. I also wondered whether the bright light would bother my team. I needn’t have worried. Actually, the light’s quite targeted and I sit in a corner, so it’s no problem for my team. And when my other colleagues come to see me, some of them ask about the light, and I tell them what it’s for. Many of them are quite interested! Or if they’re not, they’re too polite to say so, and are told anyway – hehe!
You can also get light therapy in the form of a visor, so you can move around while receiving light therapy, but I’ve never used these. Also, a new kind of device, the Valkee Brain Stimulation Headset, was launched last year. I’ve never used this either, so if anyone has any feedback to share, I’d love to hear about your experiences.
You might need to play about a bit with light therapy before you find what works best for you. It’s really worth persevering for a little while though, trying different times of the day, different distances and length of treatment.
Most people will start to feel better (more energy, improved mood) within about two weeks, but if it takes longer than this for you, don’t worry! If you’re not finding the light therapy helpful, try calling the manufacturer for some advice. If you still find that light therapy doesn’t work for you, try not to lose hope; your doctor will be able to recommend other treatment strategies, some of which I’ll talk about in part three.
Try to be as consistent as you can with your light therapy – use your light every day in the months that you normally experience symptoms. This will help keep your serotonin levels on a more even keel and, together with a few other coping strategies, hopefully you’ll feel much more your normal self than in previous winters.
In spring and summer, a run of dull weather can bring your symptoms on again. Don’t worry – many people experience this! It would be so nice to be able to put your light away in a cupboard for six months. Unfortunately the UK’s spring and summer months seem to be becoming wetter and so it’s worth keeping your light within easy reach.
And of course, my final piece of advice about light therapy: try to get as much natural light as you can! I know it’s hard, but force yourself to go out each day – or get a friend or family member to give you a prod! Sit by windows if you can too – it all helps.
I hope that you will have found this post helpful, but as always, I welcome your feedback and comments. What’s your experience of light therapy? Have you tried the Valkee in-ear system; what did you think? Is there anything missing from this post that you’d like me to include?
The next part of this post looks at dawn simulators; they’re great little inventions that help get you out of your pit in the morning!
- Neens -