There can be a lot of mixed emotions you may feel in the lead up to your first session with a new therapist.
Whether this is the first time you’ve ever been to therapy, or you’re seeing a new therapist after a history of working with others, it is not uncommon to feel an “emotional hangover” after their first therapy session.
An emotional hangover is any lingering uncomfortable feelings after your first therapy session. They typically appear a few hours after your session and can last into the following day. You may notice a range of emotions, including feeling frustrated, anxious, embarrassed, or irritable. It is not uncommon to replay certain things you said in your first session asking “why did I tell them that?” or conversely, you may be asking “why didn’t I tell them that?”
The emotional hangover can be distracting and possibly a bit uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t be highly distressing or overwhelming.
In talking to new clients, I often compare it to the feeling you might have after working out for the first time in a while. Maybe you started exercising with the goal to get stronger or healthier but the next day your muscles are tired and it’s hard to walk up stairs! Similarly, after your first therapy session you may feel an emotional “soreness” but you can also feel proud of yourself for making this choice to take care of yourself.
Let’s be honest, it’s somewhat of a unique experience walking into a room and telling a stranger some of your most personal issues. You might have shared things with the therapist you haven’t told many other people yet. And it’s common to talk about things you’ve been struggling with for a while or have a hard time putting into words. That takes bravery, honesty, and vulnerability, in other words, you were doing a lot of emotional heavy lifting.
No, anecdotally, I’d say it happens to roughly about half of the new clients I see after their first session. It’s not a problem if you experience it, it’s also not a problem if you don’t.
Most of the time, people find it useful just to be aware of the emotional hangover in the first place. If you are able to anticipate this experience ahead of time, it can help to better understand why you may be feeling a particular way after a session or why you may be acting a certain way (e.g. feeling more irritable while you’re out buying groceries that evening and realizing it may have nothing to do with the cashier that’s annoying you).
If you notice any unusual emotions, try not to get upset with yourself, remind yourself it’s quite common for people to feel this way and it’s not a problem or concern. If you’re able to, try to go easy on yourself that day (as you would with sore muscles after the gym) and if you booked a follow up appointment with that therapist, you can choose to talk to them about it at your next session.
Therapy can be an incredible experience. It can lead to personal growth, new insight, and improve your behaviours, relationships, and outlook on life. Along the way, there may be times when you challenge yourself or push a bit outside of your comfort zone and as a result, you may feel a bit of an emotional hangover.
But you should never feel unsafe, judged, pressured, or distraught by therapy. If that is the case, consider telling the therapist what you’re experiencing or, if you don’t feel comfortable doing so, talk to someone else in your life for support. It is also worth asking yourself if this therapist is the right fit for you. It can be helpful to call a local distress line where you can talk to someone immediately to cope with how you are feeling.
Recognizing the emotional hangover (or soreness) allows you to normalize what you’re experiencing and take care of yourself in the moment.
This article was written by Jaylin Bradbury during their time at Shift Collab.
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