Blue Monday is only days away. Though it's been debunked as a bit of an internet myth, the third Monday in January (this year, it's January 20) has been known as one of the most depressing days of the year. Given that we're dealing with season's shorter windows of sunlight, cold nights and (let's face it) the lack of upcoming holidays that can give us a break from the workweek, it's not entirely hard to understand why. While, again, there's no science supporting the Blue Monday idea, the designation of this day does shed light on a disorder that nearly 10 million Americans experience, especially throughout the winter months: seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.
What is seasonal affective disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder is a mood disorder similar to depression that generally peaks at the same time each year, around January and February. "Typically, people report symptoms in early fall to late winter, with most symptoms subsiding when the weather shifts in spring and summer," Marianna Strongin, a licensed clinical psychologist, says. "However, there are some cases of people experiencing SAD during the spring or summer months." Symptoms of SAD range from a loss of interest in once enjoyable activities to everyday exhaustion, a change in appetite, a feeling of hopelessness and an inability to concentrate.
What causes seasonal affective disorder?
While the specific causes of SAD are still relatively unknown, it's believed that the reduced level of sunlight in the winter disrupts the body's internal clock (or circadian rhythm) and can lead to feelings of sluggishness, depression and lack of energy. Additionally, reduced sunlight can lower serotonin levels in the brain, which affect your overall mood, as well as melatonin levels which can disrupt sleep patterns.
Does light therapy help cure the winter blues?
Accoding to the American Psychological Association, one of the most popular ways to enhance your mood and fight SAD is with a light therapy lamp, which is said to emit bright light similar to that of the sun's rays, sans the potentially harmful UV rays. But our burning question is, do these devices actually work? "Research on this is still limited, but in my personal experience patients have noted a significant difference after only a few days," Strongin says.
Let's revisit what is thought to be the underlying cause of SAD: lack of sun exposure. Light therapy devices combat this by giving patients an opportunity to soak up vitamin-rich simulated sunlight even when it is dark outside. Not only do these therapy lamps allow users to gain more exposure to good-for-you light, but as Strongin notes, "research has also found that light can cause a chemical change in the brain that can alleviate symptoms of depression and improve your mood overall."
Like most products, not all light therapy lamps are made equal. That is why the key to shopping for a light therapy lamp is looking for a product that has an exposure of 10,000 lux of light, the APA-recommended exposure to yield effective results. Also, know that light therapy isn't ideal for everyone. If you haven't been diagnosed with SAD, consult a medical professional before introducing it into your daily routine. If you are experiencing any SAD symptoms, they could end up recommending therapy, medication, light therapy or a combination of those options.
Best light therapy lamps
In addition to the standard 10,000 lux, other factors to consider include overall customer satisfaction rating, exposure distance and price. Below, we've rounded up some top-rated lamps at a range of price points, from less than $50 to up to nearly $200.
Verilux HappyLight VT22 10,000-Lux Therapy Lamp ($37.95, originally $44.95; amazon.com)
This light comes with the ideal intensity for effective light therapy. Plus its compact, tablet-like design means it can easily be placed on your desk at work, kitchen counter or nightstand. The cherry on top is that right now, it also happens to be 16% off.
Miroco Light Therapy Lamp ($39.99, originally $59.99; amazon.com)
With nearly 2,000 Amazon reviews under its belt, the Miroco Light Therapy Lamp has a near-perfect rating on Amazon. Plus, its one-touch design allows you to customize the brightness level based on the environment around you.
TaoTronics Light Therapy Lamp ($39.99; amazon.com)
This device comes in a thin, lightweight design, meaning you can pack it with you on all your skiing trips and winter getaways. And if you can't wait to get your hands on a light therapy light, it also comes with Prime two-day shipping.
Carex Day-Light Classic Plus Bright Light Therapy Lamp ($113.34; amazon.com)
Unlike other designs of light therapy lamps, this iteration from Carex delivers 10,000 lux at 12 inches, meaning you don't have to sit up close and personal to the device in order to receive all the mood-boosting benefits.
Boxelite 10,000 Lux Bright Light Therapy Light Box ($187.87; amazon.com)
And if you want even more space between yourself and your light therapy lamp, consider the Boxelite Light Box, which can deliver 10,000 Lux at 14 inches. Sit back, relax and start soaking up some much-needed sunlight.
According to Strongin, "daily meditation and journaling can both be very effective methods to help boost moods." Additionally, as SAD can result in oversleeping, wake-up lights (which mimic the sun's rays in your bedroom when it's time to rise and shine) can also help you wake up more naturally and not resort to hitting the snooze button. So after you've added your light therapy lamp to your shopping cart, it may be worth adding some of these products as well.
Philips SmartSleep Connected Wake-Up Light Therapy Lamp ($219.99; amazon.com)
For those who find themselves prone to oversleeping this time of year, the Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light Therapy Lamp could help. Once you set your wake-up time, the device will slowly emit light all around your room to mimic waking up with the sun rising. It's so effective that during an independent study, 92% of respondents found it made it easier to get out of bed.
Venn Journal ($22; nordstrom.com)
As Strongin suggests, journaling can be a healthy way to combat the winter blues. Make plans, practice daily mindfulness and reflect on the day with this recycled, eco-friendly option from Snerd.
The Five-Minute Journal ($24.99; amazon.com)
If you need some inspiration or guidance to get your journaling started, The Five-Minute Journal fits the bill. This gratitude journal gives you daily prompts and words of affirmation to start your day on the right foot in as little as five minutes.
Note: The prices above reflect the retailers' listed price at the time of publication.