The notion that you could think your way out of the winter blues or full-blown seasonal depression may sound like, well, wishful thinking. But it is possible, according to new research from the University of Vermont, and the benefits appear to be long-lasting.
This is great news for the estimated 20% of people in the U.S. who are affected by seasonal mood changes. The thinking solution is not a matter of taking a Pollyanna approach and simply looking at the bright side. It involves identifying distorted or negative thoughts and correcting or reframing them in a more positive or realistic light.
In a study at the University of Vermont, 177 adults with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression that’s most commonly related to the shorter, darker days of winter, were treated with either six weeks of light therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Then, they were monitored for the next two winters to see how they fared. During the first winter, the people in both groups responded equally well to their treatments. The big difference came during the second winter, when 46% of those who underwent light therapy experienced a recurrence of their seasonal depression, compared to only 27% of those in the CBT group.
The likely reason for the disparity: CBT teaches individuals skills they can use forever, whereas light therapy, which for years has been the go-to treatment for SAD, creates effects that last only as long as a light box is used consistently, explains study lead author Kelly Rohan, PhD, a professor of psychological science at the University of Vermont in Burlington. Instead of altering the body’s circadian rhythms as light therapy does, CBT helps people learn to think and act differently toward seasonal changes so that they don’t let the seasons control them. “The more we could change thinking, the better off the person was down the road,” Rohan says.
The key, she says, is to notice your negative thoughts and write them down, then identify the cognitive distortions that are embedded in those thoughts and challenge them. You might ask yourself: What’s the evidence to support this thought? Is there another way to look at this? How can I revise this thought so it’s less negative and more positive or at least neutral? To be effective, the reframing has to be believable to the person who’s doing it, Rohan notes. “The basic idea is to help people generate thoughts that give them some sense of control over their mood, rather than attributing it all to external factors, like the cold weather or low light.”
For example, say you often have thoughts like, the dark, gray days of winter always make me feel tired and depressed: You might counter these cognitive distortions (overgeneralization and black-or-white thinking) with a more constructive thought like, It’s true that I prefer warm, sunny weather but my mood and energy don’t have to be at the mercy of a season; I can cheer myself up. Or, if you think, I can’t do any activities I enjoy when it’s cold and snowy, you might counter this tendency to magnify negative aspects and discount positive ones with: Maybe I don’t want to run outside when there’s snow on the ground, but I enjoy ice skating and I’ve always wanted to try snowshoeing. Or, if you really don’t want to venture out, point out to yourself that: It’s pleasant and cozy to sit by the fire, drinking hot chocolate and reading a good book.
Identifying and engaging in more activities that are pleasurable in the winter is a critical part of the CBT equation, Rohan says. So consider winter a good time to go to the gym and take new exercise classes or spend more time socializing with friends. You might cultivate winter hobbies such as growing herbs in a window box, joining a knitting club, or taking a cooking or flower-arranging class. It’s a matter of “thinking creatively about what else you might enjoy and using your behavior to uplift your mood in the winter,” Rohan says.
Interestingly, the University of Vermont researchers also found that people’s expectations for CBT improving SAD increased over time and this contributed to reductions in their depression, too. It’s as if believing in the approach’s effectiveness sets the stage for people to feel the benefits, which in turn sets a positive feedback loop into motion.
By Stacey Colino