Photobiomodulation for Anxiety

Is photobiomodulation (PBM) useful for managing anxiety? There is surprisingly little clinical research to answer this question.

A study from 2009, published in Behavioral and Brain Functions, described substantial success with a form of PBM against major depression and anxiety. Another 2018 review in Journal of Affective Disorders also found PBM to be effective in treating major depressive disorder.

Treating a Spectrum of Disorders

Like those two studies, a 2016 paper published in the journal BBC Clinical described PBM as a treatment for depression and anxiety, as well as stroke (both acute and chronic), traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and psychiatric disorders.

I think it’s significant that this same paper went on to suggest a host of disorders that might be treated by PBM. They include traumatic disorders (such as stroke, injury, ischemia, and coma), neurodegenerative disorders (such as dementia, ALS, progressive aphasia, and Creutzfeld-Jakob, also known as “Mad Cow” disease), psychiatric disorders (such as bipolar, insomnia, addiction, PTSD, and psychosis), and neurodevelopment disorders (including autism and ADHD). In all, the author catalogued 23 conditions he expects PBM to treat, none of which has a reliable “cure” at present.

Alongside stroke, ALS, and mad cow disease, anxiety seems rather like small potatoes, which is probably why it gets such short shrift in the clinical research on PBM.

Anxiety is Not Depression

Most clinical researchers who are studying PBM simply lump anxiety in with depression. But the two are not the same. A website called CalmClinic, in fact, speaks to the difference: “While it would be great if there were a fool-proof way of telling you whether you have anxiety or depression, it’s not quite that simple. One person can easily have both anxiety and depression, and some people may have developed depression symptoms as a result of their anxiety disorder.”

Anxiety is usually characterized by apprehension, worry, and avoidance. Depression, on the other hand, is usually characterized by hopelessness, listlessness, and certainty that the subject’s life and prospects are negative. So anxiety is the feeling that something bad is about to happen, and you need to take some sort of action, such as running away, to escape it. Depression is the feeling that the bad has already happened, there’s no way to avoid it, and that the situation can’t get much worse.

While the two conditions are different, the conventional treatment for them is the same: antidepressant medications combined with talk therapy. This treatment has a high success rate for both depression and anxiety. But what happens if you think you could have an anxiety disorder but you aren’t ready for prescription medications and talk therapy?

PBM Might Be Able to Help

I think for some anxiety sufferers, it may be worth trying PBM. Last December, I wrote about how it can be used for depression. Full disclosure: I am not speaking from personal experience here. Personally, I don’t recall ever being anxious getting into the PBM bed. I have sometimes started PBM sessions feeling tense, fatigued, even worried — but not anxious.

But for me, after 12 minutes of PBM, I always come out with the same feelings: relaxation, energy, buoyancy. And if I had anxiety, PBM would be the first thing I would try. Feelings of relaxation, energy, and buoyancy don’t leave much room for anxiety.

One thing I know for sure. The risks of discovering whether PBM can help your anxiety are very, very low. PBM has a much lower risk of side effects than antidepressant medications, and it is even less likely to complicate your life than talk therapy. It only takes 12 minutes for a session. Book a few today.