A new way to treat seasonal affective disorder

A new way to treat seasonal affective disorder

A specially-designed form of talk therapy might be more effective in helping those with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) than a common treatment that involves light exposure.

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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  1. May be some animals are smarter than humans by HIBERNATING during winter!!!

  2. It’s a really interesting post this one as it kind of goes against what is commonly thought to be the cause of SAD, a lack of Vitamin D provided to us by the sun’s full spectrum of natural light.

    I can’t help thinking that the Vit D deficiency affecting our mood is our body telling our brain to act or suffer the consequences as it is lacking. Surely using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy in this way is essentially helping people to ignore what your body is desperately seeking?

    I would have thought that using CBT in this manner would be detrimental to the body, especially amongst those of a certain age whereby Vitamin D is essential to maintain Bone health and strength? Well, it’s essential for all ages but certainly our elderly populace may require an extra boost in this department.

    Vitamin D deficiencies for the elderly can have a hugely detrimental impact causing such concerns as osteoporosis and osteomalacia (essentially brittle bones / bone softening) and turn a simple trip and fall into a life threatening accident. I’m not sure where CBT would be able to help in this department?

    Also, as Kelly Rohan puts it, If people do genuinely find having a full spectrum sun lamp on in their room for 30 minutes a day ‘burdensome’ I’m sure that taking time out to go and visit your local Cognitive Behavioural Therapist would be a bridge too far as well.

    I would also wager that the cost of a full spectrum sun lamp (which DOES help you produce vital Vitamin D) is far, far less than regular visits to a therapist. If the use of CBT was shown to increase the levels of Vitamin D produced within a person then we are talking about a different matter all together, however there is nothing in this article to suggest this or back this up, I think my verdict is well and truly out.

    If sun lamps and therapy are too ‘burdensome’ then I have a superb, super easy solution for you, a Vitamin D (preferably D3) supplement. Easily obtainable and even easier to consume. At least then you’re ensuring that you are getting the nutrients you need rather than masking the fact that you aren’t.

    Put another way, I think the above information isn’t going to be of benefit. It’s little more than a cognitive ‘slight of hand’ rather than addressing the real issue.

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health enews Staff
health enews Staff

health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Aurora Health sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.