Study Says Therapy May Be the Most Durable Seasonal Depression Treatment

The research says talk therapy may have longer-lasting effects than light boxes.

If flashbacks to last winter already have you in cold sweats, listen up. A new study says light boxes, sunlight-mimicking machines considered the seasonal affective disorder (SAD) standby, may not be the best way to shake your cold weather slump for good.

Over the course of two winters, a University of Vermont study—where better to study SAD?—compared the depression status of patients who used light boxes and patients who saw a professional for cognitive behavioral therapy. After the first winter, the researchers saw little difference. By the second winter, however, only 27 percent of individuals who had undergone cognitive behavioral therapy had SAD recurrences, versus 45 percent of light box users. Those who did have a recurrence also reported less severe symptoms.

The study was led by UVM’s Kelly Rohan, a clinical psychologist and SAD expert. Rohan told Pacific Standard that the study suggests that patients struggling with long-term SAD are better off seeing a specialist. “My interpretation of this is these are both are effective treatments, but it seems that getting the cognitive therapy gives you more bang for your buck, in terms of staying well over time,” she said.

Rohan also said that the disparity is likely because therapy gives patients an applicable, long-lasting coping strategy, while light boxes are only effective if people are committed enough to consistently sit beside them. That said, however, cognitive behavioral therapy has not been extensively studied in the context of SAD—so it may be too soon to trash your light box completely.