February 9, 2021
I’ve shared a lot about my quest to quell anxiety over the years, including in my book, The Joy Plan. Thankfully, daily practices such as mindfulness, meditation, exercise, and a healthy diet have helped me tremendously.
But, like the majority of people in these crazy times, I found that my regular practices fell painfully short during this past year. Throwing a divorce into the mix with a pandemic propelled my negative mental feedback loop into overdrive. I found myself unable to sleep, focus, or even think clearly; I was desperate to find the “off” switch.
Not Special K.
I told my friend Zappy Zapolin, known in celebrity circles as the “Psychedelic Concierge to the Stars,” (with clients like Lamar Odom and Michelle Rodriguez) about my struggles, and he had one word for me. It definitely wasn’t a word I was expecting: ketamine.
Although I had some vague concept of ketamine as a club drug, I had no idea about its extensively studied application for anxiety, depression, PTSD, and addiction. After diving into the literature, I understood that medical ketamine treatments are legal and not to be confused with the crystallized form of ketamine that is snorted through the nose.
I was most impressed by the 2012 findings at the Yale School of Medicine that many people with chronic depression experience immediate relief after even small amounts of medical ketamine.
This is likely in part because ketamine inhibits the NMDA receptors in the brain, which contributes to its effectiveness as a painkiller and gives the drug its dissociative properties. At a low dose, ketamine appears to induce neurogenesis—new growth of neurons and synapses in the brain—creating an ideal landscape for the creation of new neural pathways. These new neural pathways make it easier to create new ways of thinking and behaving. This is why the medical aspect of ketamine treatments is so essential: A health professional needs to be there to help you navigate this new mental landscape.
In depression and other mental health conditions, brain firing patterns are disordered, and evidence suggests that ketamine-assisted therapy can help restore them. Scientists have pointed to a region in the brain that records all the stress you’ve had in your entire life, called the lateral habenula. When this mechanism gets to a certain tipping point, it goes into a “burst” mode and shuts down the area responsible for dopamine production (no dopamine feels like crap). According to a more recent study in Nature, ketamine blocks this bursting activity, acting like a light switch that turns dopamine production back on instantly.
This is why ketamine-assisted therapies can provide relief from stress and anxiety almost immediately—though there is some question about how long these effects last.
My ketamine experience.
After doing my research and hearing a number of success stories from friends, I decided to give a series of ketamine treatments a try to see for myself.
As much as I wanted relief from anxiety, it still wasn’t easy for me to justify using synthetic medicine. I usually opt for the natural, plant-based option whenever possible. However, I must admit, with each treatment, I experienced new levels of clarity, energy, and inner calm. The results increased in the days and weeks that followed.
While ketamine is not classified as a hallucinogenic, it is a psychedelic (a substance capable of producing profound experiences of reality). A high dose of ketamine puts you to sleep, but at a low dose, you enter a dreamlike state that induces an expanded perspective.
The ideal treatment protocol for depression, based on several studies at Yale, is a series of six sessions over two weeks. Since I don’t have clinical depression but do struggle with anxiety, I decided to have four treatments over two weeks in a clinic. I was later able to beta test an at-home (but clinically sanctioned) program that uses oral ketamine, which was much easier to do during these times of social distance.
My ketamine experience felt like a journey through my own mind, where I encountered beautiful visuals and accessed difficult areas of my life from a new angle. It was as if I was floating outside my body, leaving my habitual state of mind behind, and opening myself to new possibilities.
In my opinion, one of the biggest benefits of ketamine, compared to traditional pharmaceutical antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, is that it only stays in the body for hours—rather than altering brain chemistry every day. After the treatment, I was so present that I could have gone back to normal activities 15 minutes later.
However, the insights and new perspective that I had while on ketamine stayed with me. In the weeks that followed, I was also able to slip into deeper meditation more easily—which I attribute to ketamine’s potential ability to help calm rumination and a wandering mind.
The promise of psychedelics (when administered in a safe, controlled setting).
I tried ketamine during a time when psychedelic-assisted therapies are gaining more traction, funding, and credibility in American medical spaces.
The FDA has granted “breakthrough therapy” status to various psilocybin and MDMA research programs, fast-tracking their potential rollout. mindbodygreen featured psychedelic assisted-therapy as one of their major wellness trends to watch this year, and the Cleveland Clinic has called ketamine a “Top-10 medical breakthrough” for its antidepressant effect.
This attention comes at a poignant time: Last month, the CDC reported that a whopping 41% of U.S. adults suffered from anxiety in December 2020; this was compared to only 11% in January to July of 2019. In the Household Pulse Survey, 37% of U.S. adults said they felt hopeless more than half of the time in October 2020; that number soared to over 50% for adults under 30. Unfortunately, experts say that these mental health reverberations are likely to persist long after the pandemic is behind us.
At times like this, we need all the help we can get. And while not a miracle cure, ketamine—when administered in a safe, medical setting—was one such helpful treatment for me.
If you’re interested in learning more about ketamine-assisted therapy, listen to our conversation with Gita Vaid, M.D. on the mindbodygreen podcast.