Sunday Scaries

How do you unwind after therapy? 4 tips to manage emotional exhaustion

“We want you to lean into discomfort rather than avoid it.”

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man in distress

Therapy is infamously associated with a “therapy hangover” — feeling drained after working through difficult emotions. Talking to a therapist about your inner state can be exhausting. You might even finish a session feeling worse than when you started.

Compounding this situation is the fact that many people can’t choose when they need to have therapy. Since the onset of Covid-19, there’s been a surge of people seeking help, and mental health providers are struggling to meet the demand. Competition around appointment times might find you squeezing teletherapy into the workday — a boon to those who can afford it and have access to the technology, but one that sparks another difficult question: How do you move past the “therapy hangover” 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: the “therapy hangover” isn’t always a bad thing. Instead, it might mean that your effort is 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 may also indicate that the work was productive,” says Joel Minden, a clinical psychologist.

What causes a “therapy hangover”?

It is common and normal for people to feel tired or depleted after therapy, explains Jaime Castillo, a therapist and licensed clinical social worker. She compares it to other emotionally intense experiences, such as having a big argument with someone you care about or having a long cry when you’re grieving.

“Typically in therapy, we are asking you to face something that is threatening to some extent,” Castillo says. “We want you to lean into discomfort rather than avoid it.”

Facing what feels threatening, such as trauma or problematic behavior patterns, can lead to tiring, heightened states of emotion. Good and bad high-intensity emotions trigger our sympathetic system, which can be mentally and physically taxing.

“Growing pains are not limited to bodies.”

You also spend time engaging with topics that upset you: Fear of negative emotions after therapy is one of the four major hurdles identified by researchers that keep people from opening up to their therapist. But facing this fear and processing painful memories — while distressing in the short term — can help in the long term, explains Melanie Badali, a psychologist who specializes in stress and anxiety.

“You can consider it a sign of the effort you have put into a therapy session,” Badali says. She says to think of it like exercise: After a good workout, you will be tired and need time to recover. Over time, what was difficult will become easier, and you’ll move on to more challenges. You engage in hard work so you can achieve your goals.

“Growing pains are not limited to bodies,” Badali says.

How to decompress after therapy

4. Create a “buffer zone”

If you have to return to work or other responsibilities soon after therapy, Badali suggests choosing an activity that “engages your senses and grounds you in the present.” This can be as simple as partaking in deep breathing exercises or making and enjoying a cup of tea.

Castillo also recommends taking 10 minutes to go on a walk, stretch, or do some yoga. Physical activities can help “you get out of your head and into your body following a therapy session,” she explains.

3. Engage in reflection exercises

Minden recommends people take notes during appointments which summarize the 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 have to shift your attention back to school, work, or relationships, knowing you have a record of your therapy session will make it easier to transition back to your routine.”

Castillo invites her clients to “imagine putting all of the unresolved or linger emotions into a container, securing it, and placing it somewhere safe” before shifting gears to whatever they need to do next. “If emotions creep in later, you can imagine placing them in the container to be addressed at a later time,” she adds.

2. Be prepared and be mindful of your schedule

As best as you can, prepare to be emotionally drained after therapy, Castillo says. To aid in this, avoid scheduling essential meetings or tasks after a therapy appointment.

“In an ideal world, we could all schedule our therapy appointments on days we have off work to give us plenty of time to rest and recoup afterward,” Castillo says. “Since that isn’t realistic for most, I encourage people to schedule therapy on days of the week or times of the day where the workload might be lighter.”

Do you have an important meeting every Tuesday with your boss? Then that’s probably not the best day for therapy. But planning aside, all of this is contingent on a critical step: being nice to yourself.

“It’s important to be patient with yourself if it’s hard to manage post-therapy session emotions,” Minden says. “After an appointment, you may not be as relaxed or present as you’d like, so a little self-compassion can go a long way.”

1. Your therapist can help you before therapy ends.

This 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 “therapy hangover” and use it to move forward. She explains that it can be helpful to go over the feelings you experienced after therapy at your next session. You can also work with your therapist to set a schedule; as a team, you can incorporate transition time into sessions or plan to work on difficult topics on days when you have sufficient recovery time. For example, Badali and a client might meet on a day when the client can take the afternoon off work if there’s a plan to discuss an especially tough topic.

“As a psychologist, I keep my eye on the clock and will not ask probing questions or bring up a painful topic near the end of a therapy session,” she explains. “I will do that earlier in the session, so we have time to process and debrief.”

“Therapy hangovers” should not keep you from therapy, Badali says. The work is often not easy, but it can pay off through diligence and collaboration with a therapist you trust.

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