Ketamine is a medication approved for use as an anesthetic. Although scientists are still researching ketamine for anxiety, some studies show it may be an effective treatment.

Ketamine is an anesthetic medication. It relieves a person’s pain and changes their perception of reality. Healthcare professionals may use approved forms of ketamine as an anesthetic, as a sedative, or to treat depression. Healthcare professionals may currently also use ketamine “off label” to treat anxiety.

Off label refers to the use of a medication for something other than its approved uses.

Recent scientific trials have investigated the effectiveness of ketamine for depression and anxiety. Scientists are also continuing to research new ketamine treatments.

This article discusses how ketamine works, types of ketamine treatment, and how effective ketamine is. It also discusses ketamine side effects.

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Ketamine is a dissociative anesthetic that can make a person feel calm and relaxed.

It can also make people feel detached from their surroundings and pain and produce some hallucinogenic effects. These change a person’s perceptions, as well as make them feel disconnected and not in control.

Ketamine can act as pain relief or a sedative at higher doses. Researchers are still investigating exactly how ketamine works on the brain. However, it appears to affect multiple brain pathways, chemical messengers, and receptors.

Scientists believe ketamine blocks several types of receptors and pathways in the brain. One type, N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors, regulates how connections in a person’s brain change over time. Ketamine has a blocking effect on NMDA receptors.

Ketamine can also affect the levels of glutamate in the brain. Glutamate is a chemical messenger. It has important roles in a person’s memory, thinking, and mood regulation.

Both these effects may rapidly increase synaptic plasticity in the brain, or its ability to adapt and change with new experiences. Researchers believe this effect can help the brain form new pathways and disrupt older, more harmful ones. These changes may help with depression or anxiety symptoms.

Compared to other medications for depression, pain relief, or anxiety, ketamine acts faster.

Healthcare professionals may normally use medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) to treat anxiety and depression symptoms. SSRIs may take 2 to 6 weeks to start reducing anxiety. However, ketamine may produce effects within hours.

Learn more about ketamine.

Ketamine is currently a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved anesthetic. The FDA has also approved a form of ketamine called esketamine as a prescription treatment for treatment-resistant depression (TRD). Esktamine may be effective for people with TRD and with anxiety.

Healthcare professionals may prescribe ketamine for anxiety “off label.” This is called ketamine intravenous therapy (KIT). Off-label is where a healthcare professional prescribes a drug for a purpose other than it’s FDA approval.

The FDA ensures a drug is safe and effective for a specific use. However, healthcare professionals may prescribe a person any FDA-approved drug for any purpose they believe may be effective.

Ketamine is not yet FDA-approved for the treatment of any psychiatric disorder, including anxiety. The FDA has not yet established dosages or investigated its benefits and safe usage.

However, in a 2023 analysis, scientists investigated the effect of KIT on symptoms of depression and anxiety. They analyzed data on people treated with KIT from 2017 to 2020. They found that KIT significantly reduced anxiety symptoms compared to other forms of medication. This improvement stayed stable over a year of follow-up monitoring.

However, the scientists noted their study used historical data rather than firsthand observations. It also used data from a group of people that may not accurately reflect real-world effects. Nonetheless, they concluded that the study showed KIT can be an effective anxiety treatment when given as a series of infusions.

Healthcare professionals usually administer ketamine to a person in a healthcare setting with:

  • Intravenous (IV) infusions: using an IV drip of ketamine to deliver it directly into the bloodstream
  • Intramuscular (IM) shots: injecting ketamine into the muscles
  • Nasal sprays: used to administer esketamine, sometimes with other anti-anxiety medication

They may also prescribe treatments for a person to use at home or between IM or IV treatments. This type of treatment is sublingual tablets, which are tablets that a person puts under their tongue to dissolve.

Read about other anxiety medications.

Scientists continue to investigate how effective ketamine is for several conditions, including anxiety disorders.


Researchers who investigated ketamine for several mental health conditions in 2021 found it may be effective for treating certain phobias. They found ketamine injections could help reduce the effects of:

  • Agoraphobia: Agoraphobia is the fear of being in open or crowded spaces, leaving one’s home, or of being in places that are difficult to escape.
  • Social phobia: Social phobia is now known as social anxiety disorder. It is a fear of being watched or judged by others in a social situation.
  • Blood injury phobia: Blood injury phobia, or blood injury-injection-phobia, is the fear of the sight of blood, injury, or mutilation.

Learn more about phobias.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder

Ketamine IV treatment can rapidly reduce symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). However, these effects are not generally long lasting.

Scientists have investigated combining ketamine IV therapy with psychotherapy to produce longer-lasting OCD symptom reduction. However, more research is necessary.

Learn more about OCD.

Generalized and social anxiety

Scientists evaluated the safety and effectiveness of weekly ketamine treatments for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and social anxiety disorder in 2017. They found that people rapidly reported reduced anxiety after treatments, which lasted for up to 7 days.

Learn more about GAD.

The most common side effects of ketamine can include:

Other side effects of ketamine may include:

  • agitation
  • memory loss
  • cognitive difficulties
  • depression
  • unconsciousness

Some people may experience a ketamine emergence phenomenon (EP), also called emergence delirium (ED). EP is a state of confusion as a person recovers from anesthetic including:

  • euphoria
  • vivid dreams
  • illusions
  • severe confusion and disorientation
  • hallucinations

Anxiety resources

Visit our dedicated hub for more research-backed information and in-depth resources on anxiety.

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Ketamine is an anesthetic medication that can produce several sedative and other effects. Ketamine has also several potential side effects. Healthcare professionals may prescribe it for anxiety off-label.

Although ketamine is not yet an approved FDA anxiety treatment, scientific trials have shown it may be effective in reducing anxiety. Scientists continue to investigate ketamine treatments for anxiety disorders and several other mental health conditions.