I Tried to "Zap" Away My Anxiety With Electric Currents—and the Results Were Surprising

To help her crippling anxiety and depression, our writer tried a device recommended by her psychiatrist that runs an electric current through the brain. Here's what happened.

Photo: Lincoln Agnew

Last year, I almost died. OK, in reality, I only felt like I was dying. I was at my computer when mild queasiness turned into violent nausea. I stood and my legs buckled. My heart was racing, my vision tunneling; something far worse than a virus or a bad sandwich had hit me, and even though I knew what it was, I was still terrified.

I'm no stranger to panic attacks. I've suffered from anxiety and depression since my teens. In my 20s I began taking Prozac, which worked wonders. But a couple of years ago, my panic attacks returned for weekly visits, and my psychiatrist upped my dosage. Then I developed akathisia, a state of constant restlessness and agitation, which did not help my mood.

"There are medications we can give you for that," my psychiatrist suggested, "or we can try something else."

The "something else" turned out to be cranial electrotherapy stimulation, or CES. The device she uses is called the Alpha-Stim, an iPhone-size gizmo with electrodes you clip onto your earlobes. With this, she explained, I would spend one hour a day receiving a tiny electric current, so low I could barely feel it. Its side effects were minimal, the safety and efficacy well-documented.

"Hook me up," I said.

Why a current?

An estimated 16.1 million adults in the U.S. experienced at least one major depressive episode in the last year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Roughly 40 million suffer from anxiety disorders. Medication is a miracle cure for many (including me), but sometimes it's not enough, or the side effects become hard to tolerate.

Although CES has been around since the 1970s, it's gained new attention in the past decade. CES devices are FDA-cleared to treat depression, anxiety, and insomnia, and they can be used in both the home and clinical settings. And the treatment is relatively free of side effects. According to the manufacturer of Alpha-Stim, headaches have been reported in 0.1 percent of patients, and skin irritation in about 0.07 percent.

Though it's unclear exactly how this treatment works, experts believe the current travels diffusely into the brain, stimulating areas that are underactive and calming the overactive spots, explains San Antonio psychologist Kasi Howard, PsyD, who prescribes CES in her practice.

For patients suffering from anxiety, "the current activates the 5-HT axis of the brain"—the area that produces serotonin—"as well as the frontal lobe, your decision-making center," says Howard. Meanwhile, the amygdala, which processes fear and anxiety, quiets down.

While the idea of running electricity through their brain may give some people pause, CES delivers only 50 to 500 millionths of an ampere, a minuscule amount. It's very different from electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)—better known as electroshock therapy—which is administered under general anesthesia and used to treat conditions like severe depression and mania (often when nothing else helps).

Does it work?

Although the research isn't definitive, some findings look positive. For example, one study published in Journal of Affective Disorders in 2014 found that people using Alpha-Stim had more than three times the decrease in anxiety symptoms and more than 12 times the decrease in depression symptoms compared with those getting a sham treatment. "I haven't had a patient who's used it and didn't have results," says Howard. Ralph Harvey, MD, an associate professor of family medicine at Michigan State University, has been similarly impressed. "I've seen phenomenal improvement in patients in my practice," he says.

Ilene Witt, 44, a licensed vocational nurse in San Antonio, has spent eight years battling trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic pain condition so excruciating that it's infamously known as the "suicide disease." "When I got the diagnosis, my neurologist said, 'You need to let me know if you have any suicidal thoughts or feelings, because that's very normal with this,' " she says. After multiple brain surgeries failed to provide meaningful relief, she found herself in "such a dark place."

When Witt started using CES under Howard's care, however, the dark moods related to her pain began to lift. "It was amazing," she says. "I was like, 'Wait a minute. I'm in a lot of pain. Where is the hopelessness and where is the despair? I'm actually OK.'"

I tried it

During my first session with the Alpha-Stim, I felt slightly buzzed, as if I'd had half a glass of wine. I didn't feel different afterward and wondered whether I had imagined the sensation. (Clipping electrodes onto your earlobes can leave you suggestible.)

But during my second session, as soon as the device was switched on, that same calm washed over me. The rest of that day, I felt steadier, more focused.

I decided to get a prescription for my own device. CES devices are not cheap: The Alpha-Stim set me back $800, and my insurance didn't cover any of it. But after nearly a year of use, I don't regret my purchase one bit. The daily sessions themselves are relaxing, but it's what the Alpha-Stim does the rest of the time that has me sold. My mood is improved. I sleep through the night. And best of all, I haven't had a single panic attack.

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