Have you ever heard of a therapy hangover? It's real! WellNest co-founder and psychotherapist Zainib Abdullah guides us through why therapy doesn't always feel good, and how to practice self care and extend compassion to ourselves after sessions
If you’re anything like me, these were your expectations of what going to therapy would be like:
I will leave the session feeling great
I will experience a lightness I haven’t felt before
The challenging and complicated feelings can be contained in the hour I just spent with my therapist
My actual post-therapy vibe was this:
I vividly remember the fall afternoon I left my therapist’s office after the third or fourth session. That day, I got home feeling exhausted and laid on the couch, watching Drag Race for two hours straight.
As I think back, I send so much compassion to my younger self!
She judged herself too harshly for not being able to regulate her emotions at the end of the session. I remember feeling confused about what I was experiencing and even reconsidering whether I was ‘truly ready’ for therapy.
Eventually, I found the courage to return to my therapist’s office and discuss how I felt after that emotionally draining session. Armed with the knowledge that post-therapy could be a tough time for me, I learned ways to take care of myself after sessions.
What I learned has ultimately helped me get more out of therapy and also shapes my own practice as a therapist.
In this post, I will:
Explain why therapy often feels bad before it feels good
Offer ideas for self-care after particularly heavy therapy sessions
Let’s dive in!
The Therapy Hangover: Why Therapy Doesn’t Always Feel Good
Yes, ‘therapy hangovers’ are real. While this isn’t a technical term, it does a great job of capturing what we can sometimes feel after a deep and difficult therapy session.
After a session, it’s common to feel:
Physically exhausted (almost as if you’ve run a marathon)
Like you can’t take on anything else that day
Like you need to lay down or be alone for a bit
When faced with these feelings, we may have reactions such as:
“It must not be working”
“Um, I went to therapy to GET AWAY from these emotions and feel better. What is going on?”
Here Is What Is Going On
If you think about it, the feelings that come with a therapy hangover make sense. One of the biggest pieces of unlearning I had to do for my own therapy journey was accepting that therapy doesn’t always feel good.
During therapy, we often touch and unearth painful and complicated emotions that have been living within us, relatively undisturbed, for a long time.
This can involve discussing deeply personal and upsetting issues, processing traumatic events, and letting ourselves be vulnerable enough to feel and express our emotions.
No wonder we feel exhausted after- this is hard work! Especially if we are not used to this level of vulnerability.
It’s also important to note that we won’t feel like this after every single session! Therapy hangovers are more common after those deeply emotional sessions where we are talking about things that ask for a lot of vulnerability.
Sometimes, we can experience therapy hangovers after ‘lighter’ sessions too, if we are simply not used to opening up to anyone in our lives. Even a little vulnerability can feel like a lot.
It’s all relative!
A Therapy Hangover Is Not A Signal To Stop Therapy
I know, it’s tempting. But don’t be discouraged!
Experiencing therapy hangovers may actually be a sign that you are truly engaged in the process of therapy.
Changing our lives or improving our circumstances nearly always involves a phase of deconstruction. In order to move towards a new way of existing in the world, we have to explore our current way.
This can be very uncomfortable. After all, therapy is about more than what happens in that hour we sit across from each other! It’s also the hard work it takes to bring about change outside the therapy room.
However, if you are experiencing the occasional therapy hangover, it shows that you are going through the process.
Also, if you don’t experience therapy hangovers, it does NOT necessarily mean that your therapy journey is any less valid. We all approach and experience therapy differently.
My Best Post Therapy Self-Care Tips
Even though the reward is usually worth the discomfort, learning how to self-soothe after therapy sessions is important.
Here are a few of my favourite post-therapy self-care ideas!
1. Leave Breathing Room In Your Schedule
If it’s at all possible, try scheduling your therapy sessions so you have some time to decompress and regulate after therapy. This is especially useful if you have to carry on with work and family after seeing your therapist. Even 30 minutes can be a meaningful amount of time to reorient yourself.
2. Let Your Therapist Know
Don't keep it between you and yourself!
Therapy hangovers should be discussed with your therapist. It’s important for them to know how you are feeling and coping after sessions- especially if these feelings are influencing your decision to continue therapy.
A therapist can even work a ‘cool down’ period into the session, where you spend some time coming back from a difficult emotional space into the present.
3. Have A Gentle Post-Therapy Routine
A slow, gentle, and calming post-therapy routine can be just what you need. Perhaps it’s a shower, followed by some tea, listening to soothing music as you walk/drive back to work, or seeing a friend for a post-therapy date.
Having a gentle routine you can rely on gives us something soothing to look forward to.
4. Reward Yourself
Hey, you did something difficult today! And you deserve to feel proud and also to reward yourself for it!
Pop into a bakery and grab a croissant. Maybe visit a bookstore or go see a beautiful holiday lights display. Pick something you find nourishing and rewarding- the possibilities are entirely up to you!
5. Write Your Thoughts Down
If you are feeling knocked down by a tough therapy session, your mind is probably still in the therapy room, even though you have physically left. Ground yourself to the present moment by writing down the thoughts occupying your mind.
Take a moment to acknowledge the thoughts and hold yourself with kindness and compassion.
6. Put Together A Post-Therapy Care Package
Before leaving for your session (or signing on virtually), put together a post-therapy care package filled with the things that bring you joy and comfort!
Your favourite slippers, book, decadent chocolate, and loose-leaf tea. Or maybe you’re getting back into work mode and que up one episode of your favourite comedy before you start.
No matter what your care package looks like, it should be something you can look forward to after therapy!
7. Movement, Movement, Movement
I invite you to pay attention to how you’re feeling after the session.
Are you feeling more irritable, anxious, or experiencing a lot of muscle tension? Or perhaps you are feeling slowed down, hard to move, or “zoned out”?
If you are feeling the former, I recommend gentle movements in congruence with your breath. Look up short restorative yoga practices on YouTube (child pose and sphinx are my favourite after therapy with some pillows for support).
If you are feeling the latter, try this tapping video.
8. Deep Breathing
Diaphragmic breathing, or belly breathing, is an amazing way to ground yourself and find calm.
Try this: place one hand on the middle of your chest and the other on your belly.
- Here is a simple diaphragmatic breathing exercise for you to try:
- Place one hand on the middle of your chest and the other on your belly
- Inhale through your nose for 5 seconds, letting the air fill your belly and rise up towards your chest (notice the hand on your belly rise)
- Hold this breath for 2 seconds
- Now imagine blowing through a straw and exhale slowly through your mouth (notice the hand on your belly fall)
- Repeat steps 1-3 as needed
A pro tip is to focus on prolonging the exhales for added relaxation!
Here is a diagram for the visual learners:
9. Prayer And Spiritual Practice
Our religious and spiritual beliefs can provide us with comfort, hope, and meaning in difficult times. We can lean on spiritual practices to help regulate distress as well! By connecting to a higher power in a moment of dysregulation, we can gain perspective and discover a sense of purpose in the distress. Spiritual practices are help connect us to the belief that everything is transient, even this moment, even this pain.
Examples of this are praying, repeating mantras, meditation (guided or otherwise), listening to recitations of spiritual scriptures, and other spiritual practices including lighting incense or burning sage.
My hope when I set out to write this piece was to give you validation and encouragement for wherever you are in your therapy journey. Therapy is not an easy fix. It can be surprisingly taxing!
However, take it from me, as both a client and therapist...it can be SO worth your effort. It’s also okay if the therapy hangover is too much to handle in this particular season of your life. Growth and healing has no timeline. You have not failed for choosing your well-being at this moment.
I am proud of you, no matter what!
I would love to hear from you: Does a therapy hangover resonate with your experience? How do you cope with it?
Until next time!