Yvette E. McDonald, LCSW-QS
Recharging and Grounding Yourself after an Intense Therapy Session
Effective ways to recover after an intense therapy session.
Therapy has many potential benefits. Counseling is both a process and an experience. You are not only going to learn more about yourself but also how you interact with the world around you. Counseling takes on different forms in that you could be learning about a particular condition, transitioning through something, learning a behavioral skill, healing and so forth.
However, despite the many benefits that come from therapy one thing is for sure somewhere in the mix of your healing, growth, rebuilding and learning you will have a heavy/intense session that has you feeling exhausted and what some have coined having a therapy hangover. In doing my research on this topic I came across an article by Therapist Bryan Nixon that describes a therapy hangover as "that time frame after a really meaningful session, typically lasting 1-4 hours in which you may have a slight bit of tunnel vision, your thoughts will be a bit hazy." It's an uncomfortable feeling and many question both on an individual level and within couples work if therapy is even working or if is worth the discomfort.
It's easy to get stuck in your feelings at this point questioning everything and asking alot of why questions. Despite the session revealing some deep work is happening it also is the messy middle of growth or for those who filter life through faith they would know it as the valley's of life. The therapy hangover isn't a sign that you should stop your work in therapy. It should however signal you to create a suitable plan to manage the flooding in order that you can continue doing the work so that you can get to the other side of the bridge in which you experience the rewards of your hard work and dedication to the process of therapy and live your best life.
Below are effective ways to recover after a difficult therapy session:
Right after session:
Leave it in the room. Some individuals report this as extremely beneifical in order that they don't lose a whole night or day to their emotions, wandering thoughts or overthinking. They identify the therapy room as a safe space to off load and when the session is done they take a couple of deep breaths and leave what was said, in the room. At times they will circle back later in the week and catch their journal some thoughts to bring up next session.
Brain dump. Write everything down you think of and what you wanted to remember about the session. Write what you didn't get to say. Unfinished thoughts and feelings. Insights. Process what just happened. This helps your mind find closure to the session.
Manage flooding: Flooding is a state of being. It occurs when a person feels deeply threatened or feels like there is no escape. A feeling of overwhelm. This can occur from either an individual or couple's sessions. The key is taking an effective break. Do something that helps you feel grounded (see grounding techniques below). Something that has you catching your breath and feeling recharged.
Exercise Self Compassion: Reward and recognize yourself for getting through a difficult session and doing the heavy lifting that comes with therapy. Be gentle with yourself.
Enlist mindfulness: getting grounded in the present. The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook" define it as "awareness of present-moment experience with acceptance." They continue to explain that "mindfulness gives us mental space, and with mental space comes the freedom to choose how we might like to respond to a situation."
Practice grounding techniques. Create a post-therapy routine that involves any of the following grounding techniques. Find your rhythm in what helps you catch your breath.
Walk the Dog
Listen to music
Play a video game
Journaling about the experience you had
Arts and crafts
A favorite snack
Read a book
Rest to restore energy levels (especially for introverts)
Prayer and Meditation
Exercise & yoga
Playing a musical instrument
Getting a massage
Going out for coffee/tea
Bubble Bath or shower
Green time: taking a walk in nature
Watching a funny movie or anything entertaining
Aromatherapy (make sure to find scents that elicit calm)
Preparing a healthful meal and eating in a calm setting (read: The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living, is a good read for this sort of living)
Etc., etc., the possibilities are endless and only limited by your imagination and location (at times)
Ways to get ahead of it:
Bring it up with your therapist. Make sure your therapist is aware of what's happening in order that you guys can come up with a plan together. If you can't wait till the next scheduled session give them a ring and bring them in to your pain and discuss some ways to recover. This is then followed up with a session to process the rules of engagement as a couple and the ground techniques as an individual.
Practice regular self care: self-love is essential. It is crucial to you being the best version of you. Self-love is necessary for your happiness, your ability to thrive, and your confidence. Someone once told me, “An empty tank will take you nowhere. Take the time to refuel.” Today, and every day, I encourage you to take that time.
Rules of engagement: Predetermine your rules of engagement for the remainder of the evening. The Post-therapy routine is a practice that couples find beneficial following their session in order that they can keep the therapy space safe to share their deepest processed/unprocessed thoughts and feelings but also not lose their sanity. Make sure that the plan in specific addressing length of break, how regular tasks are to completed, managing the children, maintaining basic communication and reengagement.
Session planning: Process your agenda for session prior to session. If you know you'll be bringing up or discussing a difficult subject this would be the time to plan ahead. By coming up with a plan for recovery during session with your therapist, by treating yourself before session or by having extra self care following session.
Special note for parents. Children and teens don't always have the vocabulary to communicate the intensity of a session. For them you could see it manifest itself through behavior outburst or withdrawal. I've had some children/teens say they don't want to come to therapy anymore or they don't like therapy or it's a waste of time all the while in their situations it's because we were covering hard stuff and it was much easier to run then to bravely take it head on. In order to come alongside your child/teen during this journey it requires some of the steps listed above with regards to talking over with the therapist your concerns and creating a game plan for post-therapy.
It can be exhausting at times what happens in the therapy room and it is imperative to create your process for recharging and grounding yourself in order that you can function again. This is a very personalized experience with regards to finding what works for you. For me personally I favored the before session prep. I made sure I practiced good self care, went over my agenda, recognized the hard work I was doing and the "why" behind my choice to engage in therapy. I also made sure not to have anything planned on those days that required alot of energy. Therapy is important work. It's prioritizing your emotional, mental and relational health. It won't always be pretty and something you want to run to your friends and share with. You are doing important, brave work. It's okay to take some time to yourself in order to recover from some of the heavier/intense sessions. Practice self compassion. Think about what you would tell a friend in this situation and then turn that inward treating yourself with that loving kindness. Your allowed to pull back and catch your breath.
Word of caution. Be mindful of destructive impulses be it with words or actions that may invade your thought processes. I've had couples call the next day saying a partner threatened to leave the marriage after an intense session only to find it was a reactive response to the session and not something that he/she wanted to follow through with. The partner just felt so paralyzed by the session they began reacting off of their first impulses. Flooded reactions will take the relationship or interaction darker than you intended or wanted it to go once it's all said and done.
It's your turn
Different strategies works for different people. The purpose of this post is to start a discussion regarding a topic that isn't discussed enough, give you ideas of what you can do an and individual, with in a relationship and as a parent and relief and hope that you are not alone. Learn and determine what strategies work for you. Create your plan and be patient with yourself. Lean in to it, plan and grow!
Yvette E. McDonald is the owner and counselor at Traveling Light Counseling, a practice for individuals, couples and families helping them discover the person/couple they were always meant to be, as they become the best version of self in their roles and relationships in the Port Saint Lucie and Martin County area.