Light Box Therapy

Light box therapy exposes people to intense light under controlled conditions. The therapy consists of fluorescent bulbs in a box fronted with a diffusing screen, set on a table, or desk. People can then read, eat, write, or do puzzles while sitting before the light box. The treatment is simply sitting close to, and facing, the light box.

According to The Center for Environmental Therapeutics (ACET), the use of full-spectrum lights have not proved more beneficial than the fluorescent bulbs, as once thought. The full-spectrum light produces a glare that is hard on the eyes, and some users have skin reactions to it. ACET recommends soft white light that screens out UV rays and the harsh blue wavelengths.

Light box therapy used to treat SAD

Light intensity depends on how each individual responds to the illumination, why they are using the light box, and the size and type of equipment available. Light box sessions are typically 15 minutes to one hour long. This type of therapy is frequently successful in treating seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

SAD is the cyclical return of depressive symptoms during the short days of winter. Spending more time outside in sunlight during winter provides less therapeutic benefit than exposure to artificial light. The best time for sitting with the light box is early in the morning while it is still dark, or almost dark, outside.

Light box therapy is also helpful for people who have symptoms of depression the year around, including those with bipolar depression. Under a doctor’s supervision, the light box can be used by people on psychiatric medication and by those receiving electro convulsive therapy.

Light therapy works when the photo receptors in our eyes respond to light and send a message to our brain’s hypothalamus, which in turn signals the pineal gland. The pineal gland suppresses the “sleep” hormone, melatonin, and begins producing serotonin that keeps us focused and motivated.

Light box therapy side effects

Side effects from light box therapy are few. A minority of people report eye strain, headaches, restlessness, or some nausea at the start of a session. The minor effects usually diminish after a few exposures. If not, the light intensity may be adjusted.

The only problematic side effect is that some people become overactive because of the light, especially as the days grow longer. This can indicate hypomania, or mania (a bipolar symptom). Anyone who has the bipolar diagnosis should use a light box under a doctor’s supervision.

Though a prescription is not required, consultation with a doctor, before use, is highly recommended. Some insurance companies will reimburse for the light box equipment, depending on the level of medical necessity involved.

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