Therapy Hangovers | Counseling | Therapy

Therapy Hangovers

Margaret , LMFT — Therapist, website manager

Therapy Hangovers

Alcohol hangovers are the result of dehydration and electrolyte Imbalance. Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it pulls out water in the form of excess urination which will create an electrolyte imbalance. Therapy hangovers are very similar in that too much emotion might have been pulled out in a very productive, but emotionally draining session. Just like traditional hangovers, an imbalance occurs that fosters feelings of exhaustion, anxiety, isolation, and many more. Just like traditional hangovers, there are a few strategies to renourish yourself emotionally and to restore the imbalance.

What is a therapy hangover? A therapy hangover refers to the lingering emotional and mental exhaustion that can occur after a therapy session or a series of intense therapeutic sessions. It is a term used to describe the temporary aftermath of engaging in deep introspection and emotional processing during therapy.

A therapy hangover is like waking up after a long night of intense conversations with your mind and emotions feeling slightly tender and fragile. It's the emotional residue that settles in the wake of a therapy session, leaving you with a mix of relief, vulnerability, and fatigue. It's as if your mind and heart have been put through a vigorous workout, leaving you mentally and emotionally drained, but also with a sense of accomplishment.

Why do people experience therapy hangovers? Processing intense experiences is physically and emotionally draining for several reasons. The following are some of the most common factors contributing to therapy hangovers.

Activation of the nervous system: Traumatic experiences can activate the body's fight, flight, or freeze responses. These are survival mechanisms that heighten alertness and prepare the body to respond to threats. Revisiting traumatic memories or sensations may reactivate this response, leading to a surge in stress hormones, increased heart rate, and other physiological reactions. Over time, such repeated activation can be exhausting. Consider the following example:

Sarah had a car accident a few years ago. Every time she hears the sound of screeching tires or sees images of car crashes on TV, her heart rate spikes, she begins to sweat, and her hands shake. This is her nervous system reactivating the fight or flight response tied to her traumatic memory of the accident. During exposure therapy, Sarah is presented with images and sounds that she associates with her car accident. As expected, her nervous system becomes activated during the intervention. Extended exposure to things that trigger strong emotional reactions can overtax people’s nervous systems causing emotional hangovers.

Working through stored energy: When a traumatic event occurs, and an individual isn't able to complete the associated survival response (e.g., fighting or fleeing), the body might store that energy. Releasing and processing this energy, which has been contained for possibly a long time, can be draining. Consider the following example:

After being bullied in school, James always had a strong urge to run away, but was often cornered with no way out. Years later, in therapy, when recounting these events, he feels a powerful impulse to get up and run, even though there's no immediate threat. This urge is the manifestation of that stored energy from his past. The effort to remain grounded and present in the therapy room is in itself a demanding process.

Emotional intensity: Traumatic memories often carry strong negative emotions like fear, shame, guilt, anger, or sadness. Processing these emotions demands a lot of emotional energy, especially if they have been suppressed or avoided for a long time. Consider the following example:

Maria was betrayed by a close friend who shared her personal secrets with others. Whenever she thinks about this event or tries to talk about it, she is overwhelmed with a surge of anger and sadness. Processing these strong emotions with a therapist can be exhausting.

Cognitive processing: Making sense of traumatic experiences often requires a restructuring of beliefs and perceptions. This cognitive processing involves deep introspection and might challenge long-held beliefs about oneself, others, and the world. Such cognitive work is mentally taxing. Consider the following example:

Alex grew up in an abusive household where he was constantly told he was worthless. As an adult, he struggles with low self-worth. During therapy, he's challenged to re-evaluate these beliefs and consider that he was undeservingly mistreated. The process of reconciling his childhood experiences with a new perspective on his self-worth is mentally taxing and can be draining.

In all these examples, the individuals are confronted with powerful physical, emotional, and cognitive reactions tied to their past experiences. These reactions, especially when experienced intensely and frequently, contribute to the draining nature of the therapy process.

What are the symptoms of a therapy hangover?

Much like a physical hangover, a therapy hangover can manifest as a range of feelings. It might involve a heightened sensitivity to emotions, making even mundane tasks feel more challenging. Thoughts and memories stirred up during therapy can continue to reverberate in , sometimes leading to introspection or self-reflection that can be both insightful and emotionally draining. Some examples of these emotional and mental symptoms may include:

  • Quickness to anger or sadness

  • Self-isolation

  • Inability to express or feel emotions; numbness

  • Sleep disturbances due to nightmares or insomnia

  • Feeling dread, apathy, or even resentment towards yourself, your therapist, or the topics of discussion.

  • Doubt about the therapeutic experience

During a therapy hangover, you may find yourself feeling emotionally raw and exposed. It's not uncommon to experience a surge of emotions or to feel more vulnerable than usual. Your mind might be preoccupied with processing the insights gained from therapy, trying to make sense of newfound perspectives, or facing uncomfortable truths about yourself and your experiences.

The exhaustion that accompanies a therapy hangover can be both physical and mental. The intense focus on self-exploration and emotional processing demands a significant amount of energy, leaving you feeling mentally drained.

You may also experience physical symptoms as your mind and body recover from the intense therapeutic work. Trauma or past painful experiences can be stored in the body as physical sensations. As one processes these intense events, one might experience these sensations anew. This can manifest as muscle tension, headaches, stomachaches, or other physical symptoms, which can be tiring.

Some examples of these physical symptoms include:

  • Headaches/migraines

  • Fatigue

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Stomach aches

  • Indigestion

  • Body aches

It's important to acknowledge and honor the therapy hangover, understanding that it is a natural part of the therapeutic process. Just as a hangover after a night of celebration is a reminder of the fun and indulgence that preceded it, a therapy hangover signifies the depth of exploration and growth you are undertaking in therapy. It is a sign that you are actively engaging in your healing journey, even though it may temporarily leave you feeling vulnerable and fatigued.

In time, the therapy hangover will fade, and you will likely find yourself with newfound clarity, resilience, and a sense of progress. Eventually, you will emerge from it with renewed energy and a deeper understanding of yourself, ready to continue your therapeutic journey.

Am I experiencing a therapy hangover or am I not with the right therapist? Navigating the intricate landscape of therapy often involves confronting deep-seated emotions, a journey that can be both enlightening and exhausting. Therapy hangovers, to an extent, is a natural and expected part of the therapeutic process; it can signify the brave undertaking of unpacking and processing difficult feelings and experiences. However, it's crucial to differentiate between this constructive form of therapy hangover and the draining feelings that arise when there's a mismatch between the client and therapist. The latter might not always stem from delving into the therapeutic work but could be indicative of a therapist-client relationship that's not conducive to healing. Recognizing the distinction between these two types of emotional fatigue can significantly influence the trajectory of one's therapeutic journey.

Here are some questions to ask yourself to see if your hangover is a symptom of the therapy or the relationship with your therapist.

  • Do I trust my therapist with the sensitive topics and feelings that I have?

  • Do I find that my therapist listens to me and challenges me when I need it? Do I feel dismissed by my therapist or not understood by them?

  • Does my therapist impose their own beliefs or values on me? Do I feel as if my own decisions are not valid in this relationship?

  • Does it seem like my therapist demonstrates empathy or shows care for me?

  • Has my therapist ever crossed one of my boundaries or a professional boundary? Do they talk about themselves to a degree I dislike?

  • Does my therapist understand or try to understand my cultural experiences? Does it seem like my therapist puts their own biases or prejudices before mine?

By asking yourself these questions, you may be able to have more of an understanding of the causes of your therapy hangover. By heading over to this article (insert link here) you can find more information about what to do if you don’t like your therapist.

How to deal with therapy hangovers. When experiencing a therapy hangover, it is crucial to practice self-care, rest, and engage in activities that rejuvenate your mind and body to support your recovery from the therapy hangover. Here are some suggestions for managing and taking care of yourself during a therapy hangover:

  • Rest and recharge: Give yourself permission to rest and engage in activities that promote relaxation. Get plenty of sleep, as therapy can be emotionally and mentally draining. Take breaks throughout the day to rest, nap, or engage in activities that bring you comfort.

  • Practice self-compassion: Be kind and gentle with yourself during this time. Acknowledge that therapy can bring up intense emotions and that it's natural to feel vulnerable and fatigued afterward. Remind yourself that you are actively engaging in your healing journey and that it's okay to take care of yourself.

  • Engage in soothing activities: Do things that bring you comfort and help you relax. This might include taking a warm bath, reading a book, listening to calming music, practicing mindfulness or meditation, journaling, or spending time in nature. Find activities that nurture your mind, body, and soul.

  • Reflect and process: Set aside time to reflect on the therapy session or sessions that contributed to the hangover. Write in a journal about your thoughts, emotions, and any insights gained. Reflecting on the session can help you make sense of the experience and integrate the new information or perspectives into your understanding of yourself.

  • Reach out for support: If you have a trusted friend, family member, or support system, consider reaching out to them for comfort and understanding. Share your feelings and experiences with someone who can listen without judgment and provide reassurance.

  • Communicate with your therapist: If you feel comfortable, discuss the therapy hangover with your therapist during your next session. They can help validate your experience, offer guidance, and address any concerns or questions you may have. Open communication can contribute to a more supportive therapeutic relationship.

  • Engage in self-care rituals: Implement self-care practices that help you feel nurtured and balanced. This might involve engaging in activities you enjoy, such as exercising, practicing yoga, painting, cooking, or spending time with loved ones. Self-care rituals can help replenish your energy and promote emotional well-being.

  • Seek professional guidance if needed: If the therapy hangover persists or becomes overwhelming, consider reaching out to your therapist for additional support or seeking guidance from a mental health professional. They can offer insights and strategies to help you navigate through the hangover and provide guidance on managing any challenges that arise.

Remember that the therapy hangover is a temporary phase, and with self-care and time, you will gradually regain your emotional balance and resilience. Try to trust the process and be patient with yourself as you continue your therapeutic journey.

At TCFG you can schedule directly online with a therapist. If you prefer talking to a therapist first, you may call (215) 922-LOVE (5683) ext 100 to be connected with our intake department. Lastly, you can call our Director, “Alex” Caroline Robboy, CAS, MSW, LCSW at (267) 324–9564 to discuss your particular situation. For your convenience, we have five physical therapy offices and can also provide counseling and therapy virtually.

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