People who've recently started therapy or have begun doing what my therapist called "deep work" — delving deeply into serious, sometimes upsetting personal issues — may be unfamiliar with what can come next: the therapy hangover. It can feel like you've been knocked down, emotionally wrecked, or simply need to go lay down for about a week. Therapist Bryan Nixon defined the therapy hangover in a blog post as the "time-frame after a really meaningful session, typically lasting one to four hours, in which you may have a slight bit of tunnel vision, your legs and body may feel a bit heavy, your thoughts will be a bit hazy." It can be an uncomfortable experience, and may make you wonder if therapy is doing you "any good." However, experts say that it's actually a signal that you're doing excellent work — and that, unpleasant as it is, you should keep going.
Therapist Heidi McBain tells Bustle that a variety of therapy sessions are particularly likely to cause "hangovers" afterwards. "Therapy hangovers often happen after a deeply emotional session," she says. "This can be the result of talking about something that feels very vulnerable to you. It can also be grieving the loss of someone or something close to you in your life. It can be coming to a hard realization of some changes that you want/need to make in your life."
And it doesn't have to come after a particularly tough session either: If you experience therapy hangovers every session, even if you think you've just been chatting slightly innocuously with your therapist for an hour, McBain says that's not uncommon. "For some people, just coming to their weekly session and opening up can cause a therapy hangover, if they are typically pretty closed off emotionally in their everyday lives," she explains.
It's also a scientifically proven phenomenon. Researchers at NYU found in a 2016 study that emotional brain-states after intense experiences can persist for long periods of time, which is why you don't just leave your emotions in the space of therapy; you carry them with you afterwards. The hangover lasts for as long as your brain requires to process emotional information — which, in therapy, is often related to your memories. Raking through your past and making big emotional discoveries, even in a safe, therapeutic environment, has a cost.
However unpleasant they may be, it's important to know that if you're having a therapy hangover, it's a sign that you might be on the right track. A hangover, Nixon wrote, is a "good indicator of the beginning of transformation. The process of true transformation requires, initially, a period of disruption, deconstruction and exploration of your typical way of being in the world." Therapy isn't just talking; it's real work and effort, and the hangover is proof of that.
If you experience hangovers after therapy that are debilitating, McBain has advice on how to deal with them. "Take time to process what occurred in your session," she tells Bustle. "Be gentle with yourself when you’re feeling raw and vulnerable after your session. Self-care is usually a great option — meditation, mindfulness, reading, journaling, exercise, etc. to help you recharge." My own advice from experience? Have a post-therapy routine that involves something gentle; after my own intense sessions I'd call my husband and then sit quietly with a mint tea to calm my nausea (emotional distress after therapy can manifest in a lot of different ways, including in your body). Whatever I discovered in the sessions, I knew I had that space to decompress.
The hangover is also something you shouldn't keep to yourself. "Have a conversation with your therapist about these therapy hangovers so they are aware about how you feel after your sessions," advises McBain. "Also, sometimes scheduling your sessions at a different time of day can be helpful, so you can still function at work and with your family." Being knocked for six after a difficult session can be a sign of good things, but it's also genuinely hard to recover quickly. Try to schedule therapy so that you have time to return to an emotional equilibrium.
The therapy hangover isn't a signal you should stop therapy. In fact, it's a sign that you should keep going — and the rewards of going through the pain are worth it for the emotional clarity you get on the other side.