Unlike the Sunday sads, which are usually cured by takeout, tv and the passage of time, SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder, requires a more pointed approach. Light therapy is the most common treatment for the depressive disorder brought on by shorter days and less exposure to natural sunlight. But as a new study shows, a few sessions of Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) might have longer-lasting benefits than cozying up to a light box.
To be clear, light therapy works well during acute episodes of SAD, but falls short as a long-term option. In other words, exposing yourself to sun-mimicking artificial light this holiday season won’t do much to combat the blues when next winter rolls around.
For the long-term study, which was performed by Kelly Rohan at the University of Vermont, 177 people received either six weeks of light-box therapy or SAD-tailored CBT. The light therapy included half-hour light-box sessions each morning. In CBT, participants learned to modify their frames of mind towards winter, as well as their behavior during the cold months. Specifically, they worked on challenging negative thoughts about winter darkness and avoiding SAD-exacerbating habits, such as eschewing human contact to wrap yourself in blankets and watch reruns of Criminal Minds.
Rohan followed up with participants two winters after their initial treatment. Forty-six percent of the light therapy group reported recurring bouts of depression, compared to 27 percent in the CBT group. Lamp-lovers also had more severe depressive symptoms.
Light therapy, like daily medication, is a palliative remedy. A light box only works as long as it’s being used. By the second winter, Rohan found, only 30 percent of participants were still using their light boxes.
"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," said Rohan in a release.
A CBT regimen, on the other hand, typically takes six-to-eight weeks and leaves people with tools for managing and controlling their SAD symptoms down the road. (Rohan published another study that showed SAD and CBT as equally beneficial during the winter they were administered.)
So, light therapy, while merely a bandaid, is an effective bandaid nonetheless. But, if SAD is a recurring issue, CBT is more likely to stick with you.