A new way to treat seasonal affective disorder
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, SAD is a form of depression that recurs seasonally, particularly in late fall or early winter, and lasts until spring. The disorder affects 4 to 10 percent of the population, with possibly as many as 20 percent suffering from mild forms of the condition.
Because it’s believed SAD is caused by a biochemical change in the brain from winter’s shorter days and reduced sunlight, it’s most commonly treated with light therapy. This type of therapy involves daily use of a light box that imitates high-intensity sunlight, and is often very effective in relieving symptoms.
However, a new study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that a form of talk therapy (known as cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT) tailored for SAD is better at preventing recurrences of the disorder from year-to-year.
Researchers treated subjects with six weeks of either light therapy or a form of CBT that focused on challenging negative thoughts about the winter months and resisting unhealthy behaviors such as social isolation.
Two winters after the treatment, 27 percent of those in the CBT group experienced a recurrence of depression compared to 46 percent of those in the light therapy group.
“Light therapy has been shown to be a very effective form of treatment for many persons suffering from SAD,” says Dr. Kevin Krippner, an Advocate Medical Group clinical psychologist at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center in Normal, Ill. “But, like many disorders, the treatment needs to be matched up with the specific person — in general, the type of treatment depends on the person.”
In a news release, lead study author Kelly Rohan said that light therapy is a palliative treatment like blood pressure medication that requires a person 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….can be burdensome,” Rohan said.
She also said that CBT is a preventive treatment that can have the enduring impact of giving the patient a sense of control over their symptoms, once the basic skills are learned.
Rohan noted that for the first winter, both methods of treatment were equally successful, but CBT was a significantly better treatment option in the long term.
“Each of the treatments provide different advantages and disadvantages, so it would be important to consider those differences when selecting a treatment option,” says Dr. Krippner. “One big advantage of CBT is that once a person learns how to use it, the principles can be used with a variety of problems over a lifetime.”
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