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What is Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation for Anxiety?

Everyone reacts differently to mental health treatments. This is sometimes what makes them so frustrating to people. When you live with depression or anxiety, and you try treatments that fail, it’s not uncommon to feel hopeless.

But mental health isn’t like a virus or infection – there is no one-size-fits all approach, and sometimes you have to look towards other types of treatments to see if one of them works for you. For some, that may mean trying an unusual or alternative treatment, such as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, or “TMS.”

How Severe is Your Anxiety?

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation is rarely used, unless you’ve been diagnosed with a severe mental health challenge that hasn’t responded to other forms of treatment. To measure your anxiety severity, compare your score to others, and find other methods to relieve it, take our free 7 minute anxiety test.

Start the test here.

What is Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation?

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, which is commonly abbreviated as “TMS,” is a small machine used to treat severe mental health disorders – most notably major depressive disorder. It is not regularly used with those that have anxiety, so if you’re looking for more anxiety-specific treatments, make sure to take our free 7 minute anxiety test today.

With TMS, a specialized electromagnet that is placed at certain parts of the brain to stimulate brain activity. It can be used as a diagnostic tool (to diagnose some diseases) but is best known as a treatment for depression that hasn’t responded to other treatments.

With TMS, the magnetic fields stimulate nerve cells in the brain using magnetic pulses. It’s not clear from the research exactly what occurs after that, but studies frequently found that the stimulation in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) seemed to improve mood in those whose depression was resistant to other forms of treatment, such as therapy or medicine.

Does Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Work?

TMS does appear to provide some relief for major depressive disorder symptoms. However, researchers have found studying it to be challenging due to issues with what’s known as “Sham TMS.”

In order to study whether or not a treatment works, they have to compare it to what’s known as a placebo, which is a fake version of the same treatment. In the world of mental health and medicine, many people are treated with what’s known as the “placebo effect,” which means that the treatment works because consciously or subconsciously the person believes it will work.

The placebo effect is a lot more common than most people are willing to admit, and if you “fall” for the placebo effect, that doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you. In fact, almost everyone is affected by the placebo effect at some point in their life. The placebo effect is seen in:

  • Herbal Medicine
  • Some Therapies
  • Self-Help Strategies

The placebo effect even has a place in the doctor’s office. For example, some people that go to the doctor start to feel better after they’re given a medicine, even when the medicine itself had no effect. That is because a doctor telling them something will work makes them feel it is going to work.

Every time researchers study a treatment, they compare it to a fake version of the same treatment in order to determine if it works. Yet even that can be complicated.

For example, acupuncture, an ancient Chinese medicine, has consistently shown itself better than placebo. It involves placing very thin needles in specific parts of the back to improve the flow of energy and help cure various conditions. This would imply that it works.

But future studies showed that acupuncture performed no differently than “sham acupuncture.” Sham acupuncture is where someone places thin needles in random spots anywhere on the body. In other words, acupuncture itself may not be effective. It may be that because of the feelings caused by acupuncture (pain from the needles, laying in the chair, the body’s response to that pain) may lead to a feeling that something is happening, which in turn makes it seem like acupuncture is working.

The reason this is important is because researchers are having a hard time coming up with a “Sham Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation.” Since TMS does cause many different sensations in the brain, as well as noises and possible physical responses, a sham TMS has to be able to mimic those same experiences, otherwise there is no way to test if it’s really working.

Should You Try Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation?

Because of those challenges to find a working sham TMS, it’s been too difficult for researchers to fully study whether TMS works or not. TMS consistently shows itself to be better than placebo, which is great, but it is not yet clear if there is a “sham” benefit or simply a benefit.

As a result, TMS is best considered to be an alternative treatment that you may want to consider if other treatments have failed and if it has been recommended to you. It might work for you, and there is little reason in the research to believe that it won’t.

But any time you try these types of treatments, you have to also not be discouraged if it doesn’t work for you. First, it may be because the treatment is not as effective as some believe. But also, every single person with depression, and other mental health challenges (like anxiety) responds to treatments differently. Just because these treatments may not work for you, there are always more out there that might.

If you are struggling with anxiety and would like to start learning more about it and finding potentially effective ways to fight your anxiety symptoms, start by taking our free 7 minute anxiety test. The test will look at your anxiety severity, give you more statistics and information about your anxiety symptoms, and ultimately help provide some recommendations for how you can reduce your anxiety.

If you haven’t yet, start the free anxiety test here.

Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Jan 23, 2018.

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