As you embark on a healing journey through ketamine therapy, it’s reasonable to approach treatment with the expectation of seeing positive results. The science and research done on the off-label uses of ketamine have demonstrated a host of positive effects.
So what exactly are these positive effects? What benefits can you walk away from a ketamine therapy program with?
Each experience for each individual is unique. Some results may be more pronounced for yourself than others —or the reverse. Given that context, there are broad categories of experiences or benefits that emerge which are useful to address and discuss.
The two broad categories are the biological effects and the behavioral effects of ketamine.
Positive Biological Effects of Ketamine
Ketamine is a medicinal compound that is administered through intravenous infusion, intramuscular injection, oral tablets, or nasal sprays. As with any compound taken into your body, ketamine has a host of biological effects on your physical system, or physiology. These changes can occur without our conscious awareness of them, although we can be conscious of their downstream effects on how we feel physically or psychologically.
Regarding its impacts on the brain, Ketamine can be a powerful medicine. It interacts with a variety of neurochemical networks, which act to restore areas in the brain that have been “beaten down” over time by our body's physiological response to things such as stress. While doing so, it also lays down new neurological pathways. Research is still uncovering more about ketamine's complex methods of action in the brain, and what this means in the context of treating mental health conditions.
Science suggests that the biological effects are dose-dependent, meaning there is a connection between the effects of ketamine and the amount prescribed.
Below are some of the biological effects of ketamine as a therapeutic medicine that we understand based on current science.
Through a series of neurochemical reactions including increasing the level of glutamate transmission while also shifting the balance of glutamate activation from NMDA to AMPA receptors, ketamine upregulates the presence of BDNF in the brain, which helps promote the growth, maintenance, and survival of neurons. This contributes to increased neuroplasticity.
Ketamine upregulates a central cell pathway called mTOR, which helps improve synaptic connections and heal damaged synapses. This is significant when understanding that this occurs in key areas of the brain associated with emotional regulation, learning, and memory. Essentially, priming these areas of our brain to go through a psychological healing process.
Stress and depression impact the brain not just on a cellular level but also on a macro level, weakening connections within larger neural networks, such as the prefrontal cortex. Ketamine seems to help improve global connectivity in this portion of the brain and improves the linkages among the subregions, which promotes positive changes in executive function—the ability to control short-term behaviors in favor of self-control, planning, decision-making, problem-solving, and long-term goals.
Subjective Healing Effects of Ketamine
Ketamine’s positive psychological effects can be understood as the surface manifestations of the underlying biological mechanisms that ketamine works on. The biological effects “set the stage” for these sometimes subtle, but longer-term behavioral effects to take root, and rise to the surface where they have the potential to change lives.
These positive psychological effects can also emerge from the psychedelic and dissociative effects of ketamine. It’s able to induce new or novel states of consciousness, surface hidden insights or experiences, and provide space to reflect on important or pivotal aspects of life.
Psychological effects can vary from person to person. Many of them require effective and intentional integration to fully take root, but are essential for providing the long-term, life-changing effects that can happen with ketamine therapy.
Here are some of the positive phenomenological healing effects that can come through ketamine therapy:
- Emotional Regulation: An increased ability to understand and interact with emotions.
- Cognitive Distance: Feeling more ‘space’ or ‘distance’ between external events and an individual's reaction to them. This allows for more intentional behavioral responses, the rewriting of automatic triggers, and deeper introspection.
- Embodied Feelings: Visceral emotions and feelings returning to the body, potentially some that may have been discarded or forgotten (joy in a depressed person, for example).
- Novel Insights: Ketamine can facilitate crucial insights that when integrated, can provide powerful and significant changes to how the individual views themselves and the world around them.
- New Experiences: New experiences or states of consciousness can provide motivation, inspiration, or understanding of the next steps. This helps to clarify meaning and purpose and catalyze improvements to mood, emotions, and physical experience.
The Life-Changing Session
Beyond the positive benefits of ketamine as a medicine (ie: biologically) and the healing capacity of the felt experience, it is the combination or coupling of these effects that is instrumental for life-changing experiences and results.
When you combine significant insights and experiences with a highly receptive, highly adaptable mind-body dynamic, you have the potential to make progress that endures over time.
This combination creates a space where our brain is primed to heal and gain new insights and perspectives, all while we are going through a phenomenological healing process during our experiences with the medicine.
There are a few additional factors that are important when creating the best possible conditions to facilitate these results:
- Appropriate set & setting: the individual mindset and environment for the session
- Clear intentions or goals for your treatment
- Working with trained and experienced practitioners
- Commitment to the integration phase of treatment
With careful attention around the treatment process and environment, (also referred to as a “container”) formed to do this work, it’s possible to see positive benefits emerge from each session, as well as the collective growth over the course of treatment.
Some experiences with the medicine may be more calming, relaxing, and restorative. They can be seemingly meditative in nature, without any paradigm-shifting epiphanies.
Sometimes mood doesn’t fluctuate or improve as much as or as rapidly as anticipated. Although it can be challenging to understand why you didn't receive an immediate substantial relief or what we were hoping for, working with a supportive team around your experiences with medicine can help you identify areas of potential healing and steps toward incremental growth.
Experiences with ketamine as a medicine can vary greatly from person to person, and from one session to the next. This is why working with an experienced treatment team can help you make sense of each experience and come up with an individualized plan to maximize its healing potential.
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This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. If you are in a life-threatening situation, call the National Suicide Prevention Line at +1 (800) 273-8255, call 911, or go to the nearest emergency room.
Important FDA Safety Information
Ketamine is not FDA-approved for the treatment of depression or anxiety. Learn more about off-label uses here.
Side effects of ketamine treatment may include: altered sense of time, anxiety, blurred vision, diminished ability to see/hear/feel, dry mouth, elevated blood pressure or heart rate, elevated intraocular or intracranial pressure, excitability, loss of appetite, mental confusion, nausea/vomiting, nystagmus (rapid eye movements), restlessness, slurred speech, synesthesia (a mingling of the senses).
Do not proceed with ketamine treatment if any of the following apply to you:
- Allergic to ketamine
- Symptoms of psychosis or mania
- Uncontrolled high blood pressure
- CHF or other serious heart problem
- Severe breathing problem
- History of elevated intraocular or intracranial pressure
- History of hyperthyroidism
- Other serious medical illness
- Pregnant, nursing, or trying to become pregnant
Ketamine has been reported to produce issues including, but not limited to, those listed below. However, lasting adverse side-effects are rare when medical protocols are carefully followed.
While ketamine has not been shown to be physically addictive, it has been shown to cause moderate psychological dependency in some recreational users.
- In rare cases, frequent, heavy users have reported increased frequency of urination, urinary incontinence, pain urinating, passing blood in the urine, or reduced bladder size
- Ketamine may worsen problems in people with schizophrenia, severe personality disorders, or other serious mental disorders.
- Users with a personal or family history of psychosis should be cautious using any psychoactive substance, including ketamine, and discuss potential risks with your MindBloom clinician before proceeding with treatment.
- The dissociative effects of ketamine may increase patient vulnerability and the risk of accidents.
To promote positive outcomes and ensure safety, follow these ketamine treatment guidelines:
- Do not operate a vehicle (e.g., car, motorcycle, bicycle) or heavy machinery following treatment until you’ve had a full night of sleep
- Refrain from taking benzodiazepines or stimulants for 24 hours prior to treatment
- Continue to take antihypertensive medication as prescribed
- Avoid hangovers or alcohol intake
- Refrain from consuming solid foods within 3 hours prior to treatment and liquids within 1 hour prior to treatment
- Ketamine treatment should never be conducted without a monitor present to ensure your safety