Talk Therapy Better For Winter Blues Than Light Therapy, Study Finds
In the long term, cognitive behavior therapy is more effective at treating seasonal affective disorder that light therapy, considered the gold standard, a study found. Two winters after the initial treatment, 46 percent of research subjects given light therapy reported a recurrence of depression compared with 27 percent of those who were administered CBT. Depressive symptoms were also more severe for those who received light therapy.
University of Vermont
Dec 17, 2015
A new study published online in the American Journal of Psychiatry casts a shadow on light therapy's status as the gold standard for treating SAD, or seasonal affective disorder.
While the treatment was effective at addressing acute episodes of SAD, a SAD-tailored version of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) was significantly better at preventing relapse in future winters, the study found. Led by University of Vermont psychology professor Kelly Rohan, the research initiative, funded by a $2 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, is the first large scale study to examine light therapy's effectiveness over time.
Over 14 million Americans suffer from SAD, ranging from 1.5 percent of the population in southern states like Florida to over 9 percent in the northern regions of the country. An estimated 10 to 20 percent of all cases of recurrent depression follow a seasonal pattern.
In the study, 177 research subjects were treated with six weeks of either light therapy -- timed, daily exposure to bright artificial light of specific wavelengths using a light box -- or a special form of CBT that taught them to challenge negative thoughts about dark winter months and resist behaviors, like social isolation, that effect mood.
Two winters after the initial treatment, 46 percent of subjects in the light therapy group reported a recurrence of depression compared with 27 percent of those in the CBT group. Depressive symptoms were also more severe for those in the light therapy group.
"Light therapy is a palliative treatment, like blood pressure medication, that requires you to keep using the treatment for it to be effective," said Rohan. "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," she said.
The study showed that, by the second winter, only 30 percent of light therapy subjects were still using the equipment.
Cognitive-behavior therapy, by contrast, is a preventive treatment, Rohan said. Once SAD sufferers learn its basic skills it has enduring impact, giving the person a sense of control over their symptoms.
A companion study Rohan published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in September showed that light therapy and CBT were both highly effective in treating SAD during the winter they were administered, with no statistically significant differences between the two approaches.
"The degree of improvement was substantial," Rohan said. "Both treatments showed large, clinically significant improvements in depressive symptoms over six weeks in the winter."
But given the difficulty in persisting with light therapy and large number of Americans suffering from the recurrent disorder, CBT may be the better treatment option in the long term, Rohan said.
For the study, research subjects were started at 30 minutes of light therapy each morning at home, and the duration was subsequently adjusted to maximize response and reduce side effects over six weeks. Light therapy subjects were instructed to continue daily exposure at home until spring and were offered access to a light box again the next winter. A second group of subjects received cognitive-behavioral therapy during two 50-minute sessions per week for six weeks.
In the first winter after the initial treatment, the two treatment groups reported comparable relief from seasonal depression.
Disclaimer: anxietycentre.com is not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted at anxietycentre.com by contributing institutions or for the use of any information throughout anxietycentre.com's system.
The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder coach, counselor, or therapist is the most effective way to address anxiety disorder and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - the underlying factors that motivate apprehensive behavior - a struggle with anxiety disorder can return again and again. Identifying and successfully addressing anxiety's underlying factors is the best way to overcome problematic anxiety.
For more information about our Anxiety Counseling option; our Available Anxiety Therapists; to Book An Appointment with one of our anxiety therapists; common Anxiety Signs and Symptoms; common Anxiety Attack Symptoms; the symptoms of panic attack disorder; anxiety Recovery Support area; information about Anxiety; and our Anxiety 101 section; or click on the appropriate link or graphic below:
Return to our anxiety research page.
Authors: Jim Folk, Marilyn Folk, BScN. Last updated November 20, 2018.