Why We Sometimes Feel Worse After Therapy
(Spoiler Alert: it’s totally normal!)
It may come as a surprise, but many people actually feel worse after going to therapy. If you fall into this camp, there’s no need to worry. “Therapy hangovers,” as they are called, are a normal part of the therapeutic process.
Top 4 reasons people experience therapy hangovers:
You Are a Therapy Newbie
Feeling worse after therapy is most common during the early stages, and feeling extreme emotions or fatigue afterward is especially likely if you’ve never been to therapy before. Not only are you navigating a totally unfamiliar and sometimes intimidating process, but you’re opening up to a stranger for the first time about vulnerable feelings, thoughts, and memories. As you adjust to the process, and you and your therapist build a foundation of trust and mutual respect, therapy will likely become easier.
Remember: You (and your nervous system) are trying something totally foreign. And just like any other new practice, your body needs time to adjust and learn that session is a safe space. Over time, with the support of an attuned, compassionate, and skilled therapist, you’ll begin to feel more comfort with the process.
You Have a Hard Time Being Vulnerable
Opening up about feelings can be very draining for anyone, but this is especially true for those who identify as hyper-independent and/or aren’t used to discussing feelings. Perhaps you’ve been let down in the past when seeking support, or maybe you’ve always identified as “the strong one.” If you aren’t in the habit of seeking support, therapy is bound to feel at least a little uncomfortable. And that’s totally okay!
Therapy, and any form of supportive relating, involves what those in the field refer to as “co-regulation.” What this means is that one person in a relationship, whose nervous system is relaxed, essentially grounds the nervous system of another person when they’re anxious or upset. For example, when someone offers support by hugging, touching a shoulder, or saying something reassuring to the other, they are attempting to co-regulate your nervous system. A part of what therapists do is provide a reliable, consistent source of co-regulation for those whose nervous systems are frequently on high alert.
Sharing your feelings can feel scary. If you are not yet comfortable trusting others, have been let down in the past, or haven’t had opportunities to effectively co-regulate, your sympathetic nervous system may go into overdrive when talking about your feelings. Your sympathetic nervous system is the part of your body that gets activated in dangerous and threatening situations. This is why you may feel depleted, anxious, or upset after recalling troubling memories and feelings with your therapist.
You Front-loaded During Your First Session
People often come to therapy for the first time eager to make important changes in their lives. They’ve been repressing their feelings, and have made the decision to get all of their “stuff” out in the open. Media depictions of therapy enforce the belief that people must revisit their most painful traumas right away, to get to the heart of the matter and truly start their healing work. While the enthusiasm for positive change is commendable, eagerness to heal too quickly can sometimes make symptoms worse… sometimes a lot worse.
Bringing repressed traumas to the surface of conscious awareness, all at once, can be a self-inflicted form of “flooding.” Flooding is actually a technique in which clients are exposed to triggering and sensitive material at their maximum anxiety threshold, as opposed to being exposed to sensitive content gradually over time. While flooding may sometimes be effective for treating phobias when carried out with a trained professional, it’s not always beneficial. If you haven’t been to therapy before, are opening up about extremely triggering material, don’t yet have an established relationship with your therapist, and/or simply don’t yet have effective coping tools to deal with flooding, you may want to pace your disclosures to your therapist.
Remember: therapy is a journey towards healing and wholeness, and that includes learning how to recognize and honor your emotional needs and boundaries. While therapy need not always feel comfortable, you also shouldn’t haze yourself into sharing more than is comfortable all at once. You are allowed to heal at a pace that feels reasonable. You are allowed to have bad days, and you are allowed to go slowly. You are allowed to be gentle with yourself. Healing is a lifetime’s work, and you’ve already taken a tremendous step by showing up. You’ll get there in time.
You Need a New Therapist
Sadly, it’s true. Not all therapists are going to be an ideal fit for you. Just like other kinds of relationships, some therapists simply might not mesh well with your needs or expectations. It happens, and it’s totally okay. You deserve the best care possible for you. If you do not feel safe and secure with your therapist most of the time, it may be time to find a new one.