After a day of meetings that should’ve been emails, dealing with annoying co-workers and stressing over deadlines, it’s hard to keep it all together, right? Once you (finally) get into your car or take that glorious step into your home, you may have an overwhelming urge to cry, scream or hide in bed with the door closed.
For kids, this is called “after school restraint collapse,” a term coined by counselor and parent educator Andrea Loewen Nair. All day, they’ve had to talk to mean kids on the playground, behave, stretch their brains and more, so it’s understandable they may cry unexpectedly or seem crabby once they get home.
But this experience isn’t one that only kids have — adults can, too. We call it “post-work restraint collapse,” or PWRC for short. Below, mental health clinicians explain what’s going on and how to handle it.
The Psychology Behind The Post-Work Restraint Collapse
One look at what a typical day looks like for many of us, and “collapsing” afterward doesn’t have to be explained, right?
“In our modern world, we are being asked to do it all: excel at a full-time job that often exceeds 40 hours per week, have a fulfilling personal life, make time for exercise, cook healthy meals, travel and pursue that elusive work-life balance,” said Jenny Maenpaa, a psychotherapist with Forward in Heels.
Work can take a lot out of us when we have to balance priorities, manage emotions and turn in solid deliverables, she added. “At some point, we run out of willpower and energy to keep the peace and exercise restraint, and we stop being able to hold it all together,” Maenpaa said.
That struggle can especially hit at the end of the day. “When we get home, we feel safe to release our true emotions,” explained Nicholette Leanza, a therapist at LifeStance Health.
While anyone can experience this, some folks may be more at risk. For example, Maenpaa listed managers as well as people with high-pressure jobs, toxic work environments and poor time boundaries. Leanza said jobs that entail overwhelming stress, pressure, chaos or other conditions can contribute to the feeling.
“This especially impacts people from marginalized communities who are expected to ‘code switch’ during their workdays in order to keep their jobs or maintain their safety,” said Emily Treichler, a licensed clinical psychologist with Choosing Therapy. “It also impacts neurodivergent people, disabled people and people with mental illness more, especially if they need to hide aspects of themselves to keep their jobs or push their bodies beyond their natural limits at work.”
Signs You Might Be Dealing With Post-Work Restraint Collapse
Since this concept is fairly new, there’s no set list of signs, Treichler explained. That said, she believed a lot of it can be summed up by one word: exhaustion.
This may look like “a sense of depletion and having nothing left for other activities, even things that you might really enjoy, like exercise, spending time with your family or other social activities or hobbies,” Treichler said.
Emotionally, you may feel burnt out or fragile. “It can also include many other factors, like feeling more sensitive, more easily irritated or less patient,” Treichler said. “It can also mean having difficulty with impulse control, maybe saying something you didn’t mean to your partner or going through the drive-through on your way home when you would otherwise make dinner.”
The effects aren’t only mental, either. “This can also lead to physical symptoms like headaches, stomachaches, backaches, etc.,” Leanza said.
When might these signs appear? Maenpaa pointed to the period of time between work and home. “These symptoms on their own are also often signs of anxiety, depression or another mood disorder, but if they specifically occur regularly during the same time window, they can be a sign of a specific trigger related to work and the end of the workday,” she said.
Can You Prevent Or Prepare For Post-Work Restraint Collapse?
In short, yes. Let’s take it step by step, from the early morning hours until your drive home. The first move is adjusting your expectations, according to Maenpaa.
“Like most unpleasant things in life, a little bit of foresight and preparation can go a long way in minimizing negative impact,” she said. “Instead of fighting ourselves and saying, ‘I’m going to resolve to be in a great mood when I get home!’ and then getting angry with ourselves for failing, we can accept reality while also managing the symptoms of PWRC.”
Additionally, she suggested prepping for what you expect you’ll need after work. This might entail setting out easy snacks or creating a fun playlist.
Then on the job, make sure you have protective measures in place, “such as making sure to have good stress management skills, setting boundaries at work (which may mean saying ‘no’ more) and taking breaks throughout the day, which can ease some of the intensity of feeling overwhelmed,” Leanza recommended.
On the way home — or in between working and being done for the day, if you work from home — decompress. Leanza mentioned options such as listening to your favorite podcast or playlist, or riding home in silence. Whatever works for you.
Treichler encouraged taking a more long-term approach to prevent post-work restraint collapse. “One answer to prevention is to select careers and workplaces based on their ability to create and sustain a healthy environment for us,” she said.
While some of those elements are pretty universal, she added — like being treated with respect — some may be more individualized. “For example, some adults may find jobs with consistent routines day-to-day to support their health and reduce PWRC, while others may find it leads to PWRC.”
Within your job, she continued, consider what leads to post-work restraint collapse and how might you be able to address it. This might look like meeting up with a friend for lunch, getting your most annoying tasks out of the way in the morning or working in a different space in the office.
How To Cope
An overarching emphasis on validation and normalization is key. “Dealing with restraint collapse can be tough,” Treichler said. “One important step can be validating how you feel in that moment, just acknowledging, ‘Wow, I really felt pushed beyond my capacity today, and now I’m really exhausted.’ Caring for yourself means honoring how you feel.”
Then jump into self-care mode. “Maybe you need to get out and take a walk in nature, do something fun with a friend or simply watch something on your favorite streaming service,” Leanza said. Playing calming music and taking a warm bath are also great options, she added.
She particularly believes in the power of moving your body, noting it has a basis in research. For example, a 2016 study in “Cognition & Emotion” found acute aerobic exercise can reduce negative emotions. “That doesn’t have to look like just going to the gym,” Leanza said. “It can be dancing, hiking or yoga. Whatever feels good for you.”
Maenpaa suggested having a dance party with your kids, screaming into a pillow for a few minutes by yourself, riding out your anger on your Peloton, letting out your emotions via journaling, or meditating and repeating affirmations until you feel calm.
Too many options and can’t decide? Treichler encouraged aligning your behavior with your values. “This can mean finding ways to connect with your loved ones or your community; engaging in value-based activities, including hobbies; and spending time away from screens, especially if you have an office job,” she said.
While exercise and getting involved are definitely important options to consider, rest is, too. “Make sure you are truly letting your mind rest,” Treichler said. “A brief nap, mindfulness practice or time focusing on a relaxing activity, like petting your dog or listening to calming music, are good ways to engage in rest.”
Ultimately, the goal here is to feel your feelings and to let them out. “Reminding yourself that your emotions will ebb and flow like waves crashing on the beach reminds you that all emotions have a time and place,” Maenpaa said, “and that letting your negative ones out in a healthy and productive way makes room for the positive ones to show up much sooner.”