During the holidays, my family enjoys going to holiday light displays at a local amusement park and other events in our town and neighborhood. Even though I developed a sensitivity to bright and flashing lights when I was a teenager, I’ve continued to participate in the tradition of looking at holiday lights by coming up with tips and tricks for visiting holiday lights with photosensitivity. Here is how I handle bright and flashing lights during the holidays and participate in holiday traditions in a way that is safe for me and my brain condition.
What is photosensitivity?
Photosensitivity, sometimes referred to as light sensitivity or photophobia, is an intolerance to bright, strobe, or flashing lights. While not all people with these listed conditions may experience photosensitivity to strobe or flashing lights, some examples of conditions that can be impacted by strobe or flashing lights include:
- Chiari Malformation
- Non-epileptic seizures
- Sensory processing disorder
- Visual impairment
Go see light displays during the day
Some people with photosensitivity find it easier to visit light displays during the day so that the lights are turned off or less intense, though they can still see light structures and patterns. This is what my family does when we visit the light displays at a local amusement park, because at night people often wear clothing with rapidly flashing or strobe lights or carry their own flashing lights.
Have another person check the lights before you go
When my friends were going to a holiday light display outside of Washington DC, one of my friends went to check out the display in advance to see if the lights would be disorienting for me and another friend who is sensitive to flashing lights. For annual light displays, some places will put a video tour of their holiday lights display online so that a trusted friend or family member can look at the lights and determine if they will be an issue.
Understand characteristics of flashing lights
So how can someone check to see if flashing lights will be an issue for someone with photosensitivity? I tell people to look at the different characteristics of flashing lights and describe them to me so I can figure out if they will aggravate my brain condition or not. Examples of characteristics of flashing lights include:
- Flicker rate/speed- how fast are the lights flickering or changing? I tell people that lights that are flashing at the same rate as a car blinker are okay, but lights that are changing more than 2-3 times a second are disorienting
- Color and brightness of the lights- a bright white light will be more disorienting than a dark green light
- Size of the lights- a smaller flashing light may be less disorienting than a row of flashing lights that are not in sync
- Amount of flashing lights- if the entire event consists of strobe or flashing lights, then it’s better that I find a different activity
Take a note of where flashing lights are located
A lot of holiday lights displays combine flashing lights and still lights into their various decorative areas. At a holiday light display near my college, I made a note of landmarks where the flashing lights would begin and end- for example, I knew to close my eyes when we walked by the polar bear display, and a friend would tell me to open my eyes once we got to the penguin display. We got this information by calling the organization that created the lights display and asked them which of their displays had flashing lights that flickered faster than a car blinker, and they provided us a list of what items flashed and where they were located on the trail.
Do tinted glasses help with flashing lights?
For some people, wearing sunglasses or tinted glasses can help with dealing with adverse reactions to flashing lights as it decreases the brightness of the lights. Even though I wear tinted glasses for light sensitivity, I do not find wearing tinted glasses to be helpful in preventing migraines that are triggered by strobe/flashing lights, though I recognize that this is helpful for some people.
Other tips for visiting holiday lights with photosensitivity
- When driving through holiday lights displays, turn on the light inside of the car to help make the lights less intense
- Some churches will have holiday lights displays that don’t have any flashing lights at all, making them a safe activity for people with photosensitivity
- Homeowners Associations may have restrictions on whether people can add flashing light decorations to their houses or not