CBT More Effective than Light Therapy for Seasonal Affective Disorder

New research suggests that cognitive behavioural therapy may offer longer-lasting relief from the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) than traditional light box therapy.

Research at the University of Vermont suggests that cognitive behavioural therapy offers better long-term relief from the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a syndrome characterised by recurring bouts of depression during the autumn and winter months. Some 14.5 million Americans are susceptible to SAD, and many will receive treatment involving sitting in front of a full-spectrum light box, intended to approximate the effects of sunlight, for one or two hours per day.

While reasonably effective, light box treatment is time-consuming and tough to stick with for months at a time.

According to the press release describing the new study comparing CBT and light box therapy:

In a 2005 study involving 61 patients, Rohan treated one group with daily light therapy, another with 12 sessions of CBT and a third group with a combination of both treatments. A less popular option — selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors — wasn’t used. Rohan’s findings, which will be published later this year as a follow-up to a 2004 study that appeared in the June issue of Journal of Affective Disorders, show that all three groups showed comparable improvement across the six weeks of study treatment compared to a wait-list control group. In addition, the largest percentage of patients (80 percent) responded in full when CBT and light therapy were combined.

Furthermore, those who underwent CBT — both alone and with light therapy — were less depressed at the one-year follow-up compared to patients who had been treated with light therapy alone. Only six percent of the CBT participants met the criteria for depression at the one-year follow-up, while 40 percent of light-exclusive participants met the depression criteria during the winter season of the next year. The majority of light therapy users reported having a hard time adhering to the recommended twice-daily 45-minute light box sessions at the end of six weeks of study treatment. Rohan’s research offers compelling evidence that CBT talk therapy by itself may be an effective treatment for SAD and may offer some long-term benefits over light therapy.

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