Awhile back, I wrote an article about why it’s important to stick it out even when therapy sucks. Today, I want to talk a little more about what can make therapy so hard sometimes. Have you ever had a session that felt really special – like, a deep, breakthrough, oh-my-God-it-all-makes-sense-now, felt like something really shifted kind of session? The kind that makes you go “It works! It’s worth it! Something good is really happening!”
And then you crash for three days afterward?
Yeah, that’s what I’m here to talk about: emotional hangovers in therapy.
What is an emotional hangover?
‘Emotional hangover’ is a phrase I use to describe a particular response we may have when something changes in our internal world. It often shows up after a particularly heavy, difficult, or intense session – but it can also appear after a seemingly lighter session.
Emotional hangover may show up as a primarily physical, emotional, or mental experience – or a combination of all three. Some common signs of an emotional hangover include:
- Unusual fatigue following a tough or intense session
- Feeling mildly depressed without a clear cause
- Increased irritability, impatience, or lower frustration tolerance
- Ruminating on the session afterward
- Intense dreams about the content of the session
- Feeling physically drained, getting a headache, or losing all energy and motivation
- Reluctance to return to therapy/wanting to ghost your therapist
Emotional hangovers usually last anywhere from a few hours up to a few days following an intense or difficult session. Occasionally, they may last most of the week between sessions. Fortunately, they do not follow every tough session, and they do not last forever.
Why does it happen?
What makes one session likely to trigger an emotional hangover, and another leave you feeling fine afterward? Why does one person get them and the next seems unphased? Each client and each session are unique, but there are a few situations that seem to trigger them more often than not:
- Speaking the unspeakable may cause guilt for breaking the code of silence. Admitting out loud that your parents were abusive may be triggering to a client who was trained to only speak positively of their childhood. Naming that-of-which-we-do-not-speak can feel like betraying loved ones, and may cause intense feelings of shame and guilt.
- Giving voice to wounded parts may make the pain feel more real. We can become somewhat immune to the depth of our own pain when we are used to avoiding, ignoring, or pushing down the painful memories. Facing and giving voice to the parts of us that carry those memories can be jarring, even as it provides relief to the parts that have struggled to carry the pain.
- Accepting a difficult truth may mean grieving the loss of a hoped-for outcome. When we accept that things will not be the way we had hoped, we have to let go of a dream. Mourning the past you told yourself you had, and the future you’d hoped to have, can be very hard and painful. The parts of you that held those dreams may have a strong reaction to facing this loss.
- Grief, loss, facing the truth of an abusive relationship – this work is, quite simply, hard. Sometimes parts of us experience backlash during the healing process. Emotional hangover can be a way of expressing that backlash.
This is not an exhaustive list, and not everything listed above will have the same effect on everyone. It is, however, a good place to start.
What do I do about it?
If I suspect a client is likely to experience an emotional hangover following a challenging or especially deep session, I will often recommend that they put extra attention into their self-care routine. As I have previously discussed, self-care should be something a little more involved than zoning out on the couch in order to provide the rest and recovery needed to process a hard piece of work. Self-care could include connecting with a friend, creating some art, going to a yoga class, doing a puzzle, or writing in a journal. Or it could be none of those things – but it should be conscious, intentional, active, and engaged.
Lest I also scare you too much, keep in mind that not all tough sessions will trigger an emotional hangover. And certainly not every therapy session will. It tends to come with the territory of doing hard work in therapy, whether that be healing from narcissistic abuse, helping parts of you that feel unworthy and unlovable, or connecting the dots to understand why you always seem to date jerks. But it does not come after every session, and it is worth the work to heal your wounded parts.
I do my best to help clients finish sessions feeling prepared to face the coming week, but sometimes sessions must end more quickly than you feel ready for. If you experience backlash or an emotional hangover after a session, don’t ghost – come in and let’s talk about it! We can work together to help you feel more grounded, settled, and attuned to the parts of you that need additional support following hard sessions.
I don’t know if there is any truth to the phrase “it’s always darkest just before the dawn,” but I know that pain is part of the healing process. In order to heal a wounded part, it must be witnessed, understood, given voice, and offered the opportunity to release its burden. Pain is part of the work – but on the other side of it can be amazing transformation.
Hang in there. It really is worth the journey.