After a particularly trying therapy session, I sometimes feel like I’ve been hit by a bus. I’ve dubbed this feeling the “thangover,” AKA a therapy hangover. Weary eyes and drained energy, I want to melt into a puddle on the couch, wrap myself in a fuzzy blanket and feel loved by my very snuggly dog. Rarely do I get the opportunity to indulge in such comforts; most times after my morning appointment, I have to run to a meeting, go to work or transition into a not-mopey-adult-professional person.
I know I’m not alone in these feelings: “I’m so exhausted after therapy,” my friend Katie, a nurse, told me. “I’ll usually try to schedule my appointments for days when I’m not working.”
On a Reddit thread, and on another one on Psych Central Forum, commenters discuss feeling fatigued or emotionally spent. “Not every time for me, but depending on how a session goes I’ll sometimes feel very mentally drained and a need to just be alone and quiet while I ‘recharge,’ and if it was particularly painful I’ll be very sad and withdrawn for at least a day after,” one user wrote.
On Twitter, people confess to finding comfort post-therapy in all kinds of different ways; food seems to be a particularly therapeutic option.
Turns out being “thungover” is a pretty normal part of going to therapy, according to experts. Emotional pain can take a physical toll on your body. Research shows stress, anxiety, depression or other difficult psychological experiences can come with other somatic symptoms like stomachaches, muscle tension and pain, and fatigue. So it makes sense, then, that a particularly taxing therapy session where you discuss a hellish topic would take a lot out of you.
“Any time you delve into something deep or uncomfortable, it may lead you to tap into emotions that might be even more emotional or exhausting,” licensed psychologist Marni Amsellem, who works out of both Connecticut and New York, told HuffPost. “There’s the potential to awaken something within you that you had been trying to push down. You’re definitely tapping into something when you’re having one of those therapy sessions.”
The experience of feeling drained, it’s important to note, is different from experiencing extreme anxiety post-therapy.
“If you are experiencing significant anxiety as a result of a counseling session, please speak with your therapist about your concerns if this feels like a safe option for you,” said Megan Sutherland, a registered clinical social worker and founder of Willow Tree Counselling in Vancouver. “If it does not, please reach out to someone you trust or think about working with a different therapist, if this is an alternative available to you.”
Getting Rid Of Your ‘Thangover’
Feeling depleted post-therapy poses its own set of challenges: After already taking an hour out of your day to focus on self-care, it can be stressful ― and sometimes close to impossible ― to allot more time to recompose. But, according to Amsellem, there are plenty of techniques to help soften the blow of an especially tough appointment.
If at all possible, try scheduling therapy on days or during times where you’ll have some free time to decompress afterward. This isn’t possible for everyone; finding a therapist — and one that you like, trust and can afford— can be hard enough as is. Practicing simple mindfulness techniques might be another way to refocus and ease yourself back into the day, Amsellem said.
“If you come from a session that throws you off, take a moment and notice what you’re feeling, and what might be triggering it,” she suggested. “Really take a deep breath and pause. Then ask yourself what you would like to do with those feelings.” You can remind yourself that thoughts are not facts, and choose to focus on something else and revisit your feelings later. “Set your intention for whatever it is you need to refocus on.”
You can also bring yourself back to the present moment and shake off some feelings through a grounding exercise, which can help alleviate anxiety. Take a few moments to engage your senses by mentally noting five things you see around you, four things you can touch around you, three things you hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. This calms your thoughts when you’re feeling particularly overwhelmed.
Another practice that can help cure your “thangover” is journaling. The act of writing your thoughts down has been shown to have a cathartic effect.
“Journal what shows up for you [after a tough therapy session],” Ansellem said, adding that you don’t have to write for anyone but yourself, and what you write doesn’t have to be linear or make sense. “You are putting whatever you’re feeling into words for yourself. When you do that, it helps you understand and, often, when you start writing, you will make some connections you may not have seen when you originally started.”
You might choose to scribble a few thoughts down immediately after your session if you have a few spare moments. Otherwise, you can plan to revisit and write later in the day.
It might be helpful, too, to recognize that your feelings of discomfort or exhaustion can be a sign of progress. The “bad” or draining feelings are actually a sign of better times ahead.
“It’s important to know that when you tap into something really heavy, in the immediate it might feel really uncomfortable, but when you work through something, the longer term gain is really quite positive,” Ansellem said. Just sitting in your discomfort — accepting it as a necessary part of the process — may be enough for you to move on for your day.
And, hey, this may be a stretch, but you could try practicing gratitude for your “thangover.” (As most of us probably know by now, gratitude has amazing health benefits.) Unfortunately, not everyone is afforded the privilege of receiving professional help for their mental health. If you can look at your pain as progress, and allow yourself to feel grateful for that, you may discover a new kind of resilience that can better prepare you for the highs and lows that come with working on yourself.