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The Real (and Very Normal) Reason You're So Exhausted After Therapy

As someone with years of therapy under her belt, I have firsthand experience with the range of feelings that can result from a session. Sometimes I'll leave feeling light as a feather-as if a major weight has been lifted from my chest-after having a certain realization, or, with help from my therapist, learning to reframe a previously distressing situation. Knowing that I have a better grasp on some aspect of my mental health can even go as far as being reenergizing.

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But, at least for me, these sessions are the exception, not the norm. More often than not, a deep fatigue-an emotional hangover-will set in after an appointment. Sometimes it's immediate, while other times it'll hit me a few hours later, as if I had taken shots of NyQuil in the middle of the day. Assuming this meant I was even more broken than I'd originally thought, I brought it up with my therapist when we first started working together, and she assured me that both of my post-therapy responses (feeling either energized or exhausted) are completely normal. It may be normal, but that doesn't explain why it happens. Here, two mental health professionals help demystify the emotional (and sometimes even physical) exhaustion that can hit after a session of therapy.

Stress can make us tired.

Chances are, the topics you discuss in therapy are ones that cause you stress in your everyday life. If you've ever gone to a physician because you weren't feeling well, but the reason why isn't entirely clear, they probably asked you about your stress levels, and explained that stress symptoms can include everything from exhaustion and insomnia, to headaches and dizziness. And although being stressed doesn't necessarily mean a person is depressed, one of the common symptoms of depression includes changes in how much you sleep-so if you're going to therapy to deal with depression (at least in part), it can contribute to the feeling of fatigue.

What's behind your post-therapy exhaustion?

Although everyone who decides to work with a therapist does so for their own reasons, it would be difficult to find someone (in or out of therapy) who doesn't experience some type of stress. We already know that for many people, the stress response is physically exhausting, so it makes sense that we can get tired after discussing something stressful in a session, according to Adam L. Fried, PhD, a clinical psychologist and director of the clinical psychology program at Midwestern University in Glendale, Ariz.

"Talking about something that has a high emotional impact can be extremely stressful and leave us feeling physically spent," he says. "Some people who have been in highly stressful situations-like taking a really important test or exam, being evaluated, or having a tense meeting with your boss for an annual review-have experienced a similar physical exhaustion after the stressful situation ended."

Often in those situations, Fried says, people are surprised at how suddenly exhaustion can set in once the stress-inducing event is over-something that can also happen after therapy.

"Talk therapy is often a release, and many are releasing things they have stored up for years," he explains. "That process of releasing and sharing with another person can be emotionally exhausting, which can also assume the form of physical fatigue. I think for some, they don't realize the energy expended on keeping themselves going with this level of stress; it's only after they 'unload' some of what they've been carrying that they realize how exhausting it's truly been for them."

It doesn't happen to everyone or every time.

It's important to note that while some people may leave a therapy appointment so fatigued they're unable to work for the rest of the day, that's not the case for everyone. As I know from personal experience, it isn't necessarily about being a particular type of person that makes you more or less susceptible to post-therapy sleepiness-it can also depend on what you discuss in a particular session.

"Not all topics may have the same emotional impact," Fried explains. "There may be different times during the therapy process where people feel more or less exhausted, depending on what they're talking about. For example, it may be several sessions into a therapeutic relationship before you start discussing a particular traumatic event; these sessions may feel more exhausting than others." In addition to that, Fried says that someone's energy levels after therapy may also fluctuate depending on what else is happening in their life. For instance, someone working longer hours on an important project may end up experiencing more fatigue after their therapy session than usual.

Another reason some may need a post-therapy nap, according to Lise LeBlanc, a registered psychotherapist specializing in trauma and author of the PTSD Guide, is because it's part of a therapist's job to help stir up and shift painful mental and emotional patterns.

"I would compare it to turning a snow globe upside down and shaking it," she says. "This upheaval can be draining for anyone, but for introverts or those who experience social anxiety, an hour of intense interaction with a therapist-talking about stressors, traumatic experiences, and difficult emotions-can be especially exhausting."

On the other hand, LeBlanc explains, extroverts who are energized by social interaction and/or enjoy processing their thoughts and emotions, may not experience this same level of exhaustion after an appointment, or at least not as often.

The difference between emotional exhaustion and an emotional hangover

Sometimes people will refer to the onset of fatigue after a therapy session as "emotional exhaustion," but that may not be the most accurate description of what they're experiencing.

According to Fried, emotional exhaustion happens when stress levels are so high that someone feels constantly drained, overwhelmed, fatigued and irritable.

"When you regularly experience stress levels that stretch your mental and emotional resources, in time, you become emotionally exhausted and depleted," LeBlanc explains. "You can no longer properly recharge and so you wake up in the morning feeling just as exhausted as you did when you collapsed into bed the night before."

An "emotional hangover," on the other hand, is the feeling of being emotionally depleted after an emotional interaction, like a stressful conversation with your boss, an argument with your partner, or a therapy session, says LeBlanc. "The symptoms of emotional exhaustion and an emotional hangover can be quite similar and include things like feeling emotionally unstable, drained, irritable, mentally foggy, and having physical pain," she explains. "However, where emotional exhaustion results from prolonged accumulations of stress, an emotional hangover is the result of expending too much emotional energy in a short period of time."

It can also get confusing, Fried says, because some people go to therapy in order to deal with emotional exhaustion. "The exhaustion that some people talk about after having an intense therapy session is usually somewhat different because they often don't feel as irritable and overwhelmed, as is often the case with emotional exhaustion," he adds.

How to recover after a therapy session

If you find yourself exhausted after a therapy session, both Fried and LeBlanc recommend taking the time to care for yourself. Specifically, Fried suggests activities that can help you feel more focused, less stressed, and more energized-like a guided meditation, walking, or even just sitting quietly outside with no distractions.

"I usually ask clients to schedule an extra 15 to 20 minutes after their session to have a short nap or meditation," LeBlanc says. "After stirring up difficult thoughts and emotions, we need to give ourselves time to process and settle, otherwise, there is no way for the mind to consolidate insights, shift mental patterns, and release emotions." It may help, if you have the option, to schedule therapy sessions purposely at a time when you know you'll have at least a short window between that and your next responsibility.

Unfortunately, not everyone has the option of taking as much time as they need to recover after therapy. If that's the case, LeBlanc says to "do so with self-compassion." Take five minutes to sit quietly, breathe, or take a brief walk around the block.

Finally, keep in mind what my therapist initially told me when I brought up my post-session exhaustion: It's normal. "It may help to know that this isn't necessarily an unusual phenomenon," Fried says, "and that it's often a sign that what you're working on or what you shared was something of significant emotional impact."


By Elizabeth Yuko


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