Fighting Off the Winter Blues: Long-Term Benefits of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Each year following the beautiful autumn foliage, we “fall back,” change our clocks and brace ourselves for winter.  As children, many of us eagerly anticipated the prospect of snow days filled with hot chocolate and outdoor fun.  However, as we grow older, we are faced with the impacts of decreased sunlight exposure, harsh temperatures, and weather-induced traffic on our mood and behavior.  For some, the winter blues are clinically significant and result in the onset of major depressive episodes, previously referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Prior research has documented the short-term benefits of light therapy for those with SAD.  Given the recurrent nature of depression, it is particularly important to identify interventions that provide short- and long-term relief for those who suffer from depression with seasonal pattern.

In an upcoming edition of The American Journal of Psychiatry, Kelly Rohan and colleagues at the University of Vermont will publish results from their study comparing the long-term outcomes of light therapy versus cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) among 177 adults with SAD. Notably, the CBT implemented in this research was tailored to address the maladaptive thoughts and avoidant behaviors (e.g., social isolation) commonly found in those with SAD. Participants were randomly assigned to one of the two treatment options and then followed over the course of two subsequent winters. Interestingly, outcomes between the groups were similar during the winter following treatment. However, participants in the CBT group had significantly fewer depression recurrences and less severe symptoms of depression at the second winter post-treatment in comparison to those in the light therapy group. Notably, only about one third of the participants in the light therapy group continued with the intervention during subsequent winters despite being instructed to do so (participants in the CBT group were instructed to use the skills learned previously without meeting directly with the therapist). As such, Rohan and colleagues concluded that CBT may be particularly effective for preventing future recurrences of depression with seasonal pattern.

If you have noticed a pattern of significant changes in your mood and/or behavior that corresponds to the change in seasons, consider consulting with a professional. To learn more about our office’s CBT services, click here.