As the days grow shorter and colder there’s no doubt that winter is on its way. While the season brings joy to children–with snow days, snowmen and excitement for Christmas–for many adults winter ushers in feelings of gloominess and depression.
It’s not the cold weather or the icy roads that does it. The wintertime blues can be attributed to seasonal affect disorder. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) affects over 14 million Americans, with 1.5% of the population in the sunny southern states experiencing it and around 10% of the population in colder, darker northern states suffering.
Traditionally, light therapy and a healthy dose of vitamin D has been used to treat SAD. However, a recent study published by the American Journal of Psychiatry has suggested that cognitive behavioral therapy may actually be more effective in treating the condition.
The study conducted by University of Vermont’s Dr. Kelly Rohan involved 177 participants who suffered from seasonal affective disorder and was conducted over the course of two winters. The participants were separated into two different groups. The first group underwent traditional light box therapy for 30 minutes every morning for six weeks. The amount of exposure time was adjusted in order to make treatment more effective and minimize side effects. After the initial six weeks, the group was instructed to continue their daily therapy at home throughout the spring and was given access to light boxes the following winter.
The second group was given cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) twice a week in 50 minute sessions over six weeks. In their sessions, the group was provided with tools to counter negative thoughts about winter as well as avoid social isolation and other behaviors that negatively affect one’s mood.
After the first winter, booth groups experienced relief from their depressive SAD symptoms. The following winter, over two thirds of the light therapy group had quit treatment. Forty-six percent of the light therapy group reported reoccurring symptoms of depression, compared to 26% of the CBT group. Depressive symptoms were also more pronounced in the light therapy group.
Dr. Rohan explained that light therapy “requires you to keep using the treatment for it to be effective.” Using a light box every day for 30 to 60 minutes for up to 5 or 6 months in some states is a burden. Especially for anyone who works or attends school, it is hard to set aside that amount of time in the morning for a treatment.
She continued on the explain that CBT was a more effective treatment for SAD because it was a preventative treatment rather than a palliative treatment. CBT equips patients with tools to use to combat the effects of SAD long-term rather than on a day-to-day basis. The result is a long-lasting impact with patients having more control over depressive symptoms.