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Mental Health

I Tried Light Therapy for Two Weeks & Here’s What Happened

In case you haven’t been outside in the last two months, winter is in full force here in Iowa. This dreaded season does more than just make walking to class a slippery nightmare. It can also bring about something known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression caused by the lack of sunlight during the short days of winter. 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the people most at risk for developing SAD are as follows: young adults, women and people who live far from the equator. In other words, college women at Iowa = very susceptible.

How to Treat SAD

Luckily, SAD can be treated fairly easily with light therapy, which the University of Iowa just began offering as a way to boost mental health on campus. Students can check out a light box (for free!) for up to two weeks, which is how long it typically takes symptoms to improve. The boxes mimic sunlight and trick your brain into making more “happy” molecules – serotonin and dopamine. Lots of colleges offer similar programs, and the UI decided to jump on that bandwagon in November of 2018. (Yay for caring about students’ mental health!)

I’ve never been officially diagnosed with SAD, but I’ve definitely felt the symptoms – low energy, oversleeping, feeling sluggish, losing interest in things I used to enjoy. It’s like the sun took my motivation with it when it decided to set at 4:30 p.m. every day. So when I heard about the new light therapy program at the UI, I thought to myself, What do I have to lose?

Getting and Using The Light Box

I walked into University Counseling Services in the Old Capitol Mall and a few signatures later, I walked out with a light box in hand. It resembles an iPad, small enough to fit in my book bag, only instead of a touch screen, the front is one big, flat light bulb. It seemed so plain, it almost seemed wrong – could something this simple really cure my winter depression?

When I got home, I pulled the light box out, propped it up on its little kickstand, clicked it on, and almost blinded myself. Seriously, this thing is bright. I expected the light to be warm and yellow like the sun, but instead it was white and harsh. I thought, How can this be comforting? But I made a cup of coffee, settled down at my desk, and went about my homework with this light shining on me like it was a normal Monday morning. After a few minutes, I forgot it was there, and suddenly the half an hour was up and it was time to shut it off.

Student Health’s website says that for best results, the light should be used 20 – 30 minutes a day, shortly after waking up. So I tried to make it a part of my morning routine – coffee, toast, light, homework. My 8 a.m. class on Tuesdays and Thursdays threw a wrench in that plan, though. Sleep is very near and dear to my heart, so sacrificing half an hour of zzz’s to sit in front of a light wasn’t enough motivation to get me out of bed. I used it later in the afternoon instead, which is better than skipping a day altogether.

How I Felt After

The recommended two weeks are almost up, and I feel… better. Maybe it’s placebo, or maybe the light really did cause my brain to make more happy chemicals. My depression isn’t magically cured, of course – only medication and actual counseling can do that. But my winter-related symptoms have definitely improved, and it required almost no effort on my behalf. I found myself looking forward to getting out of bed (on non-8 a.m. days). I knew my day would start out on a happy, bright foot – the coffee helped, too. 

Balancing school and mental health is something I struggle with on a daily basis, and the light therapy box definitely made that balance easier. For once, I didn’t have to choose between homework and making time for my mental health. I could be productive and go about my day like normal while taking care of me at the same time. And that, my friends, is something I’m here for. 

Paige Schlichte is a senior at the University of Iowa studying Journalism and Psychology. In her free time, you can find her drinking coffee, binge-watching Friends, or rereading Harry Potter for the umpteenth time.
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