Under the Hood

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy May Be Key To Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder; Talking Away The Winter Blues

Winter Blues
Seasonal affective disorder makes people want to hibernate all season long, but a therapist could stop it from coming back this winter. Photo courtesy of Flickr, INTVGene

With fall upon us and winter right around the corner, psychologists from the University of Vermont wanted to shed some light on the best way to stop winter blues before they set in for the season. Their new study, published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, compared standard light therapy to simply talking about anxieties with a therapist. Their findings offer insight into possible ways to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a depressive state that sets in during the winter months.

"Light therapy is a palliative treatment, like blood pressure medication, that requires you to keep using the treatment for it to be effective," said the study’s lead researcher Kelly Rohan, a psychology professor at the University of Vermont, in a press release. "Adhering to the light therapy prescription upon waking for 30 minutes to an hour every day for up to five months in dark states can be burdensome."

Rohan and her team studied 177 test subjects, all of whom were diagnosed with SAD prior to the experiment. For six weeks, half the group was treated with light therapy, which involved exposing participants to a bright artificial light emitted from a box for 30 minutes each morning. The other half of the group, meanwhile, was enrolled in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which involved two 50-minute group therapy sessions each week.

After undergoing treatment for two winters, 46 percent of subjects in the light therapy group reported depression during the second winter, while only 27 percent of those in the CBT group reported a second bout of symptoms. Those who used light therapy also reported experiencing more severe symptoms than those who talked about their anxieties in group therapy.

"The degree of improvement was substantial," Rohan said. "Both treatments showed large, clinically significant improvements in depressive symptoms over six weeks in the winter."

SAD sets in like clockwork every year for most sufferers. It goes beyond just a case of winter blues, hating snow, or the bitter cold. Its symptoms include feeling depressed for most of the day, nearly every day; experiencing feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness; being sluggish with low energy; changes in weight; difficulty concentrating; and frequent thoughts of death or suicide. According to Mental Health America, half a million people report having the symptomatic mood disorder between September and April — it peaks between December and February.

Even though both treatments demonstrated remarkable results and curbed symptoms, Rohan believes CBT may be the better treatment in the long-term because it requires less time and shows more promise than light therapy. This is because CBT also acts as a preventive treatment that equips SAD sufferers with the skills necessary to protect themselves from upcoming winters.

Source: Rohan KJ, Meyerhoff J, Ho SY, Evans M, Postolache TT, and Vacek PM. Outcomes One and Two Winters Following Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy of Light Therapy for Seasonal Affective Disorder. The American Journal of Psychiatry. 2015.

Loading...