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Seasonal Affective Disorder: The Fake-Sounding Sadness You Can Supposedly Cure By Looking at a Box

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a fake-sounding disorder with a fake-sounding treatment, but they're real.
Photo via Pixabay user Kapa65

Winter causes depression. If you're just someone who simply prefers it sunny, all that means is you're human. On the other hand, If you're one of the roughly ten million Americans with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), you have a legit psychiatric condition that can jeopardize your wellbeing if you're not careful. However, research suggests that your salvation might come in the form of a ridiculous-looking illuminated box.


The definition of SAD has evolved considerably over the decades since it was first discovered. According to a 2014 paper by Columbia University psychiatrist and founder of the nonprofit Center for Environmental Therapeutics, Michael Terman, in addition to depression that switches on and off with the seasons, SAD sufferers also "exhibit atypical vegetative symptoms of depression." Those include an increase in the amount of sleep per night, and a craving for carbohydrates (with the requisite weight-gain that you would expect to go along with all the carbs).

Still, the condition sounds ridiculous on the face of it ("My doctor says winter makes me sad you guys!"), but it's actually so real that you can sue your boss if they don't make the necessary accommodations for your SAD treatment.

Stare at this. Photo via Wikimedia Commons user Sillu

So far, the best answer science has come up with is essentially a lamp that tricks your brain into thinking the weather is nicer. According to one study, its effects are comparable to antidepressants. Another study found that it really isn't a placebo effect. The National Institute of Mental Health is in the process of figuring out if it's better than therapy.

We got in touch with Elizabeth Saenger, a psychiatrist from the Center for Environmental Therapeutics, to find out how bathing yourself in the right kind of light can save you from this wintertime misery.

VICE: How is SAD different from depression that happens to occur in winter?
SAD is like major depressive disorder (MDD) by symptom criteria, and is differentiated only by its reliable seasonal timing.


What sort of treatment works for SAD?
You can cure Seasonal Affective Disorder, for the most part, by using lightboxes.

That sounds like a folk remedy. Do you have a hard time getting people to accept that that's what they need to do?
You know, that's a good question, because it's the kind of thing that I would doubt since I'm not into complimentary and alternative medicine. But it's beginning to get more acceptance.

How does it work?
What they do is they give you half an hour—it could be more or less depending on the person, and what the person's professional advisor or therapist or whatever advises—they can give you half an hour of bright light that wakes you up.

You just need a lightbox?
Or you can go outside if you live in a sunny place. You can go outside for half an hour and then you'll get that kind of light. And that will keep you from getting down. And that's pretty effective.

Is that all?
If you don't get it at the right time in the morning—right after the alarm wakes you up—and you get it in the evening, then it's really going to mess things up. It's going to screw up your circadian rhythms because the bright light will suppress the production of melatonin and it will be hard for you to get to sleep. So yes, you want to get plenty of light but even more importantly, you want to get it at the right time.

So you have to be very dedicated, and stare at your lightbox every morning.
I have a friend—a social worker—who uses a lightbox […] She told me about a time when she went to the airport with her lightbox, and called in advance to find out whether she could get it on the plane, and whether they would search her belongings and think that this was a very strange form of a bomb or something. [But] she used it at the airport, in the lobby area, prior to boarding the plane, for her usual half hour of treatment.

I would imagine it's hard to get insurance to pay for one.
Yeah, and in Europe it's very different. [There] you can get insurance to pay for things customarily.

Are there any drawbacks or dangers to lightbox use?
I don't know for certain. I'd imagine that it could make somebody manic if they had bipolar disorder. If you try wake therapy—where you keep someone awake all night—they can sometimes become manic if it's not done correctly. So that could be a side effect. But given that we have sunlight all the time, I doubt that would be serious. I don't know, but theoretically that could be possible. People should do research to find out how to use their lightbox.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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