I hate it when therapy sessions end.
Not because of the therapy itself, but because of how I feel afterwards: drained, depressed, possibly nursing a headache, too mixed-up to focus on my work, and feeling a strong desire to curl up under my duvet and hide from the entire world for the rest of the day/week/century.
In other words, I get what’s known as a therapy hangover.
If you’ve experienced similar feelings, then you’re far from an outlier. Just Google ‘therapy hangover’ and you’ll see how common these symptoms are, as counsellor and psychotherapist Fiona Corbett explains.
‘Therapy is a process of exploration, clarification and processing of feelings, relationships and experiences, so following the session it’s normal to feel the impact of this,’ Fiona tells Metro.co.uk.
‘You might be trying to process a realisation or a perspective. Perhaps you’re feeling a feeling intensely in a way you haven’t previously.
‘You may feel drained by the processing you’ve done, or want to be alone to cope with the thoughts or feelings arising from the session.’
Luckily, while these ‘thangovers’ might be annoying, they’re also short-lived – and there are plenty of ways you can stop them from derailing the rest of your day.
Firstly, you should not do what I’ve been doing and try to jump back into work or studying straightaway. Instead, set aside time for a well-deserved break.
‘My coping strategy is to book in an hour after therapy sessions, to decompress,’ explains SEO consultant Natalie Arney. ‘And if that hour’s not enough, obviously I can’t cancel the day – but I’ll give myself a treat to look forward to, like getting a takeaway.’
As for how you spend that decompression time, it’s a good idea to recharge your brain with something relaxing and low-key.
‘If I’m feeling symptoms of a therapy hangover, I normally go into a pitch-black room and sit for 20 minutes,’ says freelance writer and mental health advocate Casey Clark. ‘I don’t fall asleep per se, but I give myself time to unwind and work myself down from a heightened emotional state.’ She follows this up with other self-care activities like TV, music, and puzzles.
Alternatively, you might prefer Natalie’s routine: ‘What I usually do is make a cup of tea – and a lot of the time I’ll cry! Then I’ll try to calm myself down, just get away from my desk; see my cat and give her a bit of a fuss; walk around the house, and then slowly get myself back into the day.’
Get moving (and go green)
You could also try some light exercise – such as walking or swimming – to help your thoughts settle and to shake off any leftover nervous energy.
Whatever you do, walking therapist Carmen Rendell recommends getting outside to do it.
Carmen, who co-founded wellbeing network Soulhub in 2015, says: ‘Take yourself off into nature. Stay away from phones and people and be by yourself in nature to allow your body to recalibrate. It’s the best healing place.’
Write it out
This one might seem daunting, but don’t worry: there are no rules, and it’s not complicated. Just grab a notebook, or open a suitable app, and write whatever comes into your head.
For instance, TV director Rochelle Newman says that after a therapy session, ‘I write down my thoughts and feelings so I can take a step back from the topic or situation and come back to it when I’m ready, which is usually in the evening before bed or early the next morning when I’ve digested the information.’
What if you’re short on time?
Ideally we’d all set aside an hour after every therapy session, or schedule them for evenings or weekends. Sometimes, however, that just isn’t possible.
Luckily you can still practise self-care even if you only have a few minutes, according to complementary therapist and coach Olivia James.
‘Spend five minutes near a tree or some park,’ Olivia suggests. ‘Or if there’s a particular song that soothes your soul, listen to that song. Or for some people it might be a certain breathing exercise that you know will help settle or ground you – whatever works for you.’
Don’t mix up thangover symptoms with warning signs
There’s a difference, however, between normal ‘thangover’ symptoms and more serious trauma responses that you may need extra help in overcoming.
Even after an intense session, Olivia says: ‘Hopefully within 24 hours or so you should start to feel more settled. And that yes, it was painful, but I kind of feel better for it.’
However, if this pain lasts for more than 48 hours, or if you experience symptoms such as nightmares, flashbacks or thoughts of self-harm, you should tell your therapist.
Ideally, they’ll work with you on processing your experiences safely. If they don’t, or if they criticise you for having these reactions, then they’re probably not the right professional for you.
‘Shop around and find a therapist you feel safe with,’ Olivia says. ‘Because if you feel like they’re judging you, that’s not a recipe for healing. Your therapist may challenge you, but you’ve got to feel that they’re challenging you because they have your best interests at heart, not because they’re disapproving of you.’
Be your own best friend
As we established earlier, therapy hangovers are natural, common, and absolutely not your fault. That’s why it’s so important to practise self-compassion and to not beat yourself up for having them, or for being less productive than usual because of them.
‘Our anger and sadness are there to tell us something,’ says Carmen. ‘Accept that the emotion is there, and that it’s perfectly normal and okay. If you have this awareness, then it’s easier to be kind to yourself.’
My advice: imagine that your best friend is going through something similar.
You wouldn’t criticise them for needing a break after something as important as therapy – so why do it to yourself?
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