Talk Outshines Light

The new promise in preventing the winter blues

A new study is casting a bit of a shadow on light therapy to treat seasonal affective disorder — SAD — often referred to as the “winter blues.”

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Researchers compared patients diagnosed with SAD who used two different types of treatment — light-box therapy and a specific kind of talk therapy. They found that cognitive behavioral therapy was significantly better at preventing SAD from coming back in future winters.

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“It was important to do the study because, although light therapy is a very effective treatment, it’s not a treatment for everyone,” said Kelly Rohan, the University of Vermont professor who led the research.

It’s the first large-scale study to examine light therapy’s effectiveness over time, researchers said. They looked at 177 patients who suffered from clinical depression in the winter. The patients were treated with six weeks of light-box therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy with what Rohan calls “seasonal twists.”

Those twists include, among other things, working on negative thoughts about the weather and finding winter-appropriate activities that can bring a sense of enjoyment, Rohan told LifeZette.

More than 14 million Americans suffer from SAD, with the higher percentage of sufferers in the northern part of the country.

More than 14 million Americans suffer from SAD, with the higher percentage of sufferers in the northern part of the country.

Thirty-year-old Jessica Hamlet is one of them. Two years ago, after having a baby, she went back to work at her family’s local church in West Michigan. The winter weather had just started to creep in.

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“It hit rock bottom as far as my mental stability went. That was a really, really tough winter for me,” she said.

Hamlet had struggled with SAD for years and had given light therapy a try. It had been helpful for someone she knew, but like many patients in the University of Vermont study, she had difficulty sitting in front of the light box every day.

“That didn’t really work for me at all,” she said. “Talk therapy was really the only remedy.”

Hamlet said it’s important to share her struggle with winter depression. She’s used her blog to talk about SAD and encourages her readers to get help — whether it’s sitting in front of a light box or talking to a therapist.

Both therapies have proven useful for many of Jeff Janata’s patients. Janata is chief of the Division of Psychology at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio, an area known for its long, gray winters. He said while he found the results of the University of Vermont study interesting, it will not change the way he treats his patients.

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“We need more studies to be clearly able to say that one approach is better than another for a large group of people,” he told LifeZette.

No matter which treatment he may prescribe, Janata said helping patients get better largely boils down to their level of commitment.

“The results tend to take a while to present themselves, so I think a lot of the issue is keeping people’s motivation up and helping them sustain a sense that if they persist at this, ultimately, they’ll feel better,” he said.

The study is published in the American Journal of Psychiatry and was funded by a $2 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.