New Treatment Options for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Sad Winter

It’s that time of year….

During the winter months, people are more likely to report feeling tired, depressed, or sad. For many of us, these feelings are a normal response to less sunlight, and an occasional case of the “winter blues” is mild and manageable. Others, however, are struggling with the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a clinical form of depression. What is the difference between the two?

In a recent interview published by the American Psychological Association, SAD expert Kelly Rohan, PhD, explains the signs of the disorder and potential treatments. Rohan is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Vermont who specializes in cognitive-behavioral therapy, theory of depression, and SAD.

According to Rohan, SAD is a pattern of major depressive episodes during the fall and winter months, with periods of full improvement in the winter and spring. “The symptoms of SAD are exactly the same as non-seasonal depression symptoms, which can include a loss of interest or pleasure in normally enjoyed activities, excessive fatigue, difficulty concentrating, a significant change in sleep length and thoughts about death or suicide. The only difference with SAD is the seasonal pattern it follows,” says Rohan in the APA interview.

Widely used treatments for SAD include light therapy, that is, daily exposure to bright artificial light during the months when depressive episodes occur; anti-depressant medications are sometimes prescribed, as well. In recent years, however, Rohan’s lab has been researching the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for SAD. “CBT is a type of talk therapy used and researched extensively for non-seasonal depression since the 1960s, but we are the first group to apply the treatment to SAD,” Rowan says. “The CBT for SAD treatment we have been testing includes 12 structured sessions, delivered two times per week over six weeks in the winter. The sessions focus on developing skills to improve coping with the seasons. The therapist works with the patient to foster two types of skills: behavioral (doing) skills and cognitive (thinking) skills. The behavioral skills involve identifying, scheduling and doing pleasurable, engaging activities every day in the winter. Over time, these proactive behaviors are meant to counteract the down, lethargic mood and the tendency to give in to ‘hibernation’ urges that are so common in SAD. The cognitive skills involve learning to identify and challenge negative thoughts when experiencing SAD symptoms.”

In Rohan’s clinical trial, patients who had been treated with CBT generally had better outcomes than those who had been treated with light therapy alone. “These results suggest that treating someone initially with just CBT may be more effective in the long term,” says Rohan. “My lab is completing a study to find out if these results hold in a larger, more definitive study funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health.”

What do you think? Could CBT be a promising treatment option for clients with SAD? PAR wants to hear from you, so leave a comment and join the conversation!

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