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My Weird and Wonderful Experience With Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation for Depression

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Editor's Note

Any medical information included is based on a personal experience. For questions or concerns regarding health, please consult a doctor or medical professional.

My mental health journey has not been an easy one. During the last 12 years, I have tried countless medications, seen multiple different therapists, been admitted twice to psychiatric hospitals, and have been to many different psychiatrists. My diagnoses were very simple at that time: bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder (MDD) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). My treatment plan was primarily medication-based which centered around my bipolar diagnosis.

Fast-forward to January of this year: I’m at a new psychiatrist’s office and trying a medication I had been on before with no luck, which happened to make the other meds I was still taking incompatible with my body chemistry and left me unmedicated. This was not ideal as I was struggling immensely with my anxiety and in a deep depression that had no break at this point. During this time, my bipolar diagnosis was under review as they felt I didn’t exhibit the typical symptoms of someone who is bipolar. This caused a lot of internal identity fraud as this was something that was a part of me for 12 years. At the same time it was mentioned, and confirmed later by my therapist, that I also live with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). With medication being unhelpful, my psychiatrist mentioned another form of treatment: transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). This was a treatment I had never heard of before but based on her description, and my research, I was intrigued.

The approval process was the most stressful part in my case as getting approved with your insurance can require a lot of documentation stating that you have tried previous treatments that have failed. In my case, my doctor needed to show I tried over 10 different medications, all of which needed to be taken for a minimum of two months and that I experienced issues that prevented me from using the medication as intended. In addition, I needed to have the diagnoses that are approved for TMS treatments. Since bipolar is not a covered treatment, I started to accept it more as a blessing in disguise instead of seeing it as a part of me that is now gone. Roughly three weeks after my evaluation appointment, my treatments were approved.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a non-invasive treatment, that essentially involves sitting in a chair for roughly 20 minutes per session with a “hat-like” device sitting on your head. This device then sends magnetic pulses to a very specific section on the left side of your head where the mood regulation part of your brain is located (this location on your head is determined during an initial mapping appointment that takes about an hour). Since it is a non-invasive treatment, there are typically minimal side effects experienced and you are able to resume your “normal” daily activities post-treatment. Common side effects are a mild discomfort at the site of the device and headaches; seizures can occur as well but they are considered rare. The experience during TMS varies so make sure to be open with the TMS tech, or your doctor, during treatment. These appointments aren’t long, but the process as a whole requires a lot of patience and time, as you are asked to attend each session five days a week for anywhere from four to six weeks. My specific treatment plan was six weeks, five days a week, with the addition of three additional weeks for tapering sessions.

During my initial mapping session I was told that it is likely I will experience a slight increase in mood, followed by a dip into my depression, and then it should balance out towards the end and post-treatment; additionally, since the specific machine I was being treated with primarily treated MDD, it was likely I would experience an increase with my other diagnoses. Both of these things occurred for me and at the time it made me concerned that I was wasting my time with this treatment. It was weird to notice how my anxiety and OCD increased, which caused daily panic attacks and hours of thoughts spiraling out of control, all while my depression seemed to improve.

Going through treatments was incredibly hard, as I was experiencing a daily mental drain and emotional overload, but with the advice of my psychiatrist, I started therapy around the second week of treatment. In hindsight, I wish I would have done therapy towards the end of treatment because it became overwhelming at times to be battling such a war of emotions while also constantly talking about and learning new things about myself. I feel I decided to take on too much at once and if I could give one piece of advice to anyone who may be thinking about TMS or is starting the process, make sure to only do what you feel equipped to handle. TMS can be draining for some and while I 100% recommend therapy (something I used to feel I didn’t need) I think it’s a good idea to get a feel for TMS first.

I’m almost a month post-treatment and it has been such a weird and wonderful time. My mood has improved considerably, my emotional response to tough situations has become better — this has also improved thanks to therapy — and I find myself experiencing more positive than negative feelings on a daily basis. I am overwhelmingly thankful for my psychiatrist’s office, as well as appreciative for finally finding a mental health professional that is in my corner. The one thing this process has taught me is that I am stronger than I thought I was, and no matter what, there is always another path to take that leads to a healthier and more meaningful life. While it is very possible I may need maintenance treatments in the future, I have come to a place in my life where I accept that help is necessary and that not all battles can be won alone. With the help of TMS I am finally equipped to make many lifestyle changes I found daunting in the past. To anyone who may read this, never give up. Help is always available and quality doctors are out there. Even when it feels impossible, never give up.

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

Originally published: December 10, 2020
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