UVM professor studies light therapy treatments

A UVM professor is researching how to make winter more bearable for those affected by seasonal affective disorder.

SAD is diagnosable clinical depression following a seasonal pattern, Professor of Psychological Science, Kelly Rohan said.

The same symptoms as depression are present, such as feeling sad, losing interest in things, fatigue and changes in weight and sleep patterns, Rohan said. However, it is triggered by fewer hours of daylight in the winter months.

About 4-6 percent of people have SAD, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.

In her study, Rohan tested the effectiveness of light therapy versus cognitive behavioral therapy.

Light therapy entails sitting in front of a medical d vice that produces light at the same intensity of sunrise for 30 minutes daily, while cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of talk therapy which focuses on learning new ways to think when the patient notices sinking mood or stress, Rohan said.

“CBT is focused on trying to get people to be proactive when they are depressed, to do things differently to cope with mood instead of withdrawing and isolating, as these behaviors breed depression and can make things worse,” Rohan said.

She wanted to focus on the chance of relapse occurring rather than short-term results, she said.

“I’m not interested in getting the best results at six weeks, I’m asking what we need to do to offset risk of reccurrence,” she said.

Rohan found CBT was a more effective long-term approach and lessened the severity of depression.

“Both the treatments worked initially, but then when we follow people into new winter seasons, two winters later, there is a very clear split,” she said. “A little less than half of people in light therapy had a recurrence, but only a quarter did with CBT. The symptoms were also less severe after CBT.”

“I was not particularly surprised at the results,” said Jonah Meyerhoff, a graduate student who worked with Rohan on the study.

“Within the field of cognitive behavioral therapists and researchers, it’s known that CBT can offer longer term benefits than many other forms of treatment,” Meyerhoff said.