Therapy is sadly associated with a “therapeutic hangover” – feeling exhausted after going through difficult emotions. Talking to a therapist about your inner state can be exhausting. You might even end a session feeling worse than when you started.
This is compounded by the fact that many people cannot choose when to go to therapy. Since the start of Covid-19, there has been a surge of people seeking help, and mental health providers are struggling to respond to the request. Competition over appointment times could lead you to squeeze teletherapy into the workday – a boon for those who can afford it and have access to the technology, but which raises another difficult question: how to overcome the “ hangover from therapy” and dive back into your responsibilities?
Experts tell me there are concrete steps you can take to decompress after therapy and move forward with your day, but here’s the good news first: “Therapy hangover” isn’t always a bad thing. Instead, it could mean your efforts are working.
“If you focus on emotionally charged topics in therapy, which most people do, it’s not only normal to feel tired after your appointment, but it can also be a sign that labor has been productive” , Explain Joel Mindenclinical psychologist.
What causes a “therapeutic hangover”?
It’s common and normal for people to feel tired or exhausted after treatment, explains Jaime Castillo, therapist and licensed clinical social worker. She compares it to other emotionally intense experiences, like having a big fight with someone you care about or crying for a long time when you’re grieving.
“Usually in therapy, we’re asking you to face something that’s threatening to some degree,” Castillo says. “We want you to lean into the discomfort rather than avoid it.”
Coping with what seems threatening, such as trauma or problematic behavioral patterns, can lead to intense and tiring states of emotion. High intensity good and bad emotions trigger our sympathetic systemwhich can be mentally and physically taxing.
“Growing pains aren’t just limited to bodies.”
You also spend time discussing topics that bother you: Fear of negative emotions after therapy is one of the top four barriers identified by researchers that prevent people from opening up to their therapist. But facing that fear and processing painful memories — albeit distressing in the short term — can help in the long run, explains Melanie Badalipsychologist specializing in stress and anxiety.
“You can take this as a sign of how much effort you put into a therapy session,” Badali says. She says to think of it like exercise: after a good workout, you’ll be tired and need time to recover. Over time, what was difficult will become easier and you will move on to other challenges. You engage in hard work to achieve your goals.
“Growing pains aren’t limited to the body,” says Badali.
How to decompress after therapy
4. Create a “buffer zone”
If you must return to work or other responsibilities soon after therapy, Badali suggests choosing an activity that “engages your senses and grounds you in the present.” It can be as simple as participating in deep breathing exercises or making and enjoying a cup of tea.
Castillo also recommends taking 10 minutes to walk, stretch, or do yoga. Physical activities can help you “get out of your head and into your body after a therapy session,” she explains.
3. Do thinking exercises
Minden recommends people take notes during appointments that summarize key takeaways.
“Write down what you learned, what you want to remember for the future, and any goals you have for the week,” he says. “When you need to shift your attention back to school, work, or relationships, knowing you have a recording of your therapy session will make it easier to transition into your routine.”
Castillo invites her clients to “imagine putting all unresolved or lingering emotions into a container, securing it, and placing it in a safe place” before shifting into high gear for whatever they need to do next. “If the emotions creep in later, you can imagine placing them in the container to be processed later,” she adds.
2. Be prepared and watch your schedule
As best you can, prepare to be emotionally drained after therapy, Castillo says. To achieve this, avoid scheduling essential meetings or tasks after a therapy appointment.
“In an ideal world, we could all schedule our therapy appointments on days when we don’t have work to give ourselves enough time to rest and recover afterwards,” Castillo says. “Since this is unrealistic for most, I encourage people to schedule therapy on weekdays or times of day when the workload might be lighter.”
Do you have an important meeting every Tuesday with your boss? Then it’s probably not the best day for therapy. But planning aside, it all hinges on one critical step: being kind to yourself.
“It’s important to be patient with yourself if it’s difficult to deal with the emotions of the post-therapy session,” Minden says. “After a date, you may not be as relaxed or present as you would like, so a little self-compassion can go a long way.”
1. Your therapist can help you before therapy ends.
It goes back to the exercise metaphor: if you add too much weight too soon, you can work on new skills before trying again.
Badali advises working with your therapist to manage the “therapeutic hangover” and using it to move forward. She explains that it can be helpful to review the feelings you experienced after therapy during your next session. You can also work with your therapist to establish a schedule; as a team, you can build transition time into sessions or plan to work on difficult topics on days when you have enough recovery time. For example, Badali and a client may meet on a day when the client can take the afternoon off work if there is a plan to discuss a particularly difficult topic.
“As a psychologist, I keep an eye on the clock and won’t ask probing questions or bring up a sore topic near the end of a therapy session,” she explains. “I’ll do it earlier in the session, so we have time to process and debrief.”
“Therapy hangover” shouldn’t keep you from getting therapy, says Badali. The work is often not easy, but it can pay off with diligence and collaboration with a therapist you trust.