Prevent the Winter Blues with Talk Therapy

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The University of Vermont recently performed a research study and found that over the long term, cognitive behavioral therapy is the most effective way of treating seasonal affective disorder than light therapy. Two winters after receiving treatment, 46 percent of participants who received light therapy reported a recurrence of depression when compared with 27 percent who went through cognitive behavioral therapy.

The Study Findings

Apparently talk therapy works better than light in helping to ward off winter depression. The results of the study were published online in the American Journal of Psychiatry in November, 2015. The findings of the study cast doubt on light therapy’s status as being the go-to treatment for seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

While treatment was sufficient in addressing acute episodes of depression, a seasonal affective disorder-tailored version of cognitive behavioral therapy was much better at preventing a relapse into depression in future winters.

The study was led by University of Vermont psychology professor Kelly Rohan and was funded by a $2 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health. It was the first large scale study to examine the effectiveness of light therapy over time.
More than 14 million individuals currently suffer from seasonal affective disorder. Recurrent depression follows a seasonal pattern in an estimated 10 to 20 percent.

The study was performed over six weeks and it involved 177 subjects. The participants in the study received either light therapy using daily exposure of bright artificial light or a special type of cognitive behavioral therapy that taught the person to challenge their negative thoughts about dark winter months.

Two winters after initially receiving treatment, approximately 46 percent of participants in the study reported a recurrence of depression, as compared with only 27 percent of those who received cognitive behavioral therapy. The symptoms of depression were more severe for those who received light therapy.

Dr. Rohan stated, “Light therapy is a palliative treatment, like blood pressure medication, that requires you to keep using the treatment for it to be effective. 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.”

The study proved that by the second winter, only 30 percent of light therapy users were still actively using the equipment.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a preventative treatment. Once people who have seasonal affective disorder learn the basic skills, its impact lasts, giving the individual a sense of control over their depression.


Given the difficulties presented when someone is using light therapy for treating SAD, cognitive behavioral therapy can be a better long-term treatment option. More study is necessary in order to find out more about the benefits of using cognitive behavioral therapy for treating seasonal affective disorder.


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