To Combat Winter Blues, Talk May Be Best

Cognitive behavioral therapy may help seasonal affective disorder patients more than light therapy

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Jennifer Gershman, PharmD, CPh

(RxWiki News) For seasonal affective disorder (SAD), light therapy has long been considered the gold standard in treatment. But a new discovery may change that.

A new study from the University of Vermont (UV) found that SAD patients may benefit more from a SAD-tailored version of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) than from light therapy in the long term.

According to the authors of this study, while light therapy is effective at addressing acute episodes of SAD, it may not prevent relapses.

"Light therapy is a palliative treatment, like blood pressure medication, that requires you to keep using the treatment for it to be effective," said lead study author Kelly Rohan, PhD, a professor of psychology at UV, 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."

SAD is a type of depression related to changes in the seasons, meaning it begins and ends at about the same times every year. Treatment for SAD can include light therapy, psychotherapy (mental health counseling) and/or medication.

Light therapy works by mimicking outdoor light. This type of light is thought to cause chemical changes in the brain that can lift a patient's mood and ease other SAD symptoms. Most patients use light therapy for a minimum of 30 minutes each morning.

CBT is a common type of psychotherapy that can help patients become aware of inaccurate or negative thinking so that they can see challenging situations more clearly and respond to them in a more effective way.

For this study, Dr. Rohan and team treated 177 patients with either light therapy or a CBT program for six weeks.

After two winters, 46 percent of patients in the light therapy group reported a recurrence of SAD symptoms — compared to 27 percent in the CBT group. These symptoms were also more severe for patients in the light therapy group. And only 30 percent of the light therapy patients were still using the equipment by the second winter.

This study was published online Nov. 5 in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

The National Institute of Mental Health funded this research.

Dr. Rohan received royalties from Oxford University Press for the treatment manual for CBT as a SAD intervention.

Review Date: 
November 5, 2015
Last Updated:
November 9, 2015