3 ways to manage a therapy hangover

Every Tuesday evening I go and see my counsellor. He is a skillful, compassionate and generally excellent therapist. At the end of our sessions together, I feel better. Better for having spoken about my feelings, faced my fears and explored my emotions. But the next day… The next day is often awful. I am weepy, headachey, morose and exhausted. On more than one occasion I’ve had to take an afternoon nap, so severe are the symptoms of my therapy hangover.

The therapy hangover is tough. And it’s intense. In fact the experience can be so destabilising for some clients that they decide to stop their counselling sessions altogether. But please consider carefully before doing this, because the therapy hangover is actually a really positive sign. It means that you’re doing the work. And you’re probably doing it well. Unpleasant though the therapy hangover is, uncommon it is not. And the good news is there’s lots you can do to manage your counselling comedown.

1. Accept the therapy hangover as a good sign

Change may be necessary, but it’s not often easy nor does it feel good. I remember in the early days of my first pregnancy feeling overwhelmed with morning sickness. I struggled to get my head round the fact that my non-stop nausea, occasional vomiting and low mood could lead to a bouncing baby. The two things seemed so incompatible. Yet it did.

A couple of weeks ago I was reading The Comfort Book by Matt Haig, and he used the example of how distressing it could be for the caterpillar, trapped alone in his claustrophobic cocoon, to turn into a beautiful butterfly. And the same is true for us. The only way to process pain and arrive at a better, more stable place, is to go through it. And that’s going to be mentally and physically hard.

But the therapy hangover the next day is proof that you’re exploring uncomfortable memories and that your mind is working to integrate them. Counselling is not chit chatting with your friend. You’re not making conversation with your counsellor. It’s very purposefully reliving an unpleasant past, potentially spotting patterns and ideally getting insight into yourself and your behaviour. Self awareness enables you to step into your next stage of life, with pain from the past mostly processed.

2. Make the day after as pleasant as it can be

Some emotional pain post counselling is to be expected. And anticipating a counselling comedown means that appropriate self care can be scheduled. There’s no hard and fast rules about what works. It really depends on what delivers comfort and calm to you, personally.

Some clients prefer to have connection with colleagues the day after, so they don’t have too much time to dwell. But others can’t stand the charade of having to wear a ‘work face’ and prefer to be at home to process their feelings. Similarly, some clients like to watch a good action or comedy the next day, whereas others want to focus and journal about how they’re feeling. It really comes down to what works for you. But planning a balanced and enjoyable day after, that caters for your emotional and physical needs, can make the therapy hangover a lot more manageable.

3. Talk to your therapist about your counselling comedown

I’ve put this one last, but it’s certainly no less important than the other two points. A good counsellor will want to know how you’re feeling between sessions as this will inform the look and feel of your subsequent sessions. If you find, post session, that you’re reliving trauma, feeling flat for days or becoming tearful for hours at a time then discuss this with your counsellor. It’s always possible to make changes to the work you do together. Sessions can be made less challenging, the pace can be slowed and support between sessions can be explored. As a therapist myself I would want to know if my clients had been feeling strong emotions, and how they’d been managing them. If you feel tempted or soothed by thoughts of drinking, drugs or self harm then let your counsellor know immediately. You won’t be judged and you won’t be admonished but you do deserve to be heard and helped.