I’m new to therapy, but having recently embraced my weekly sessions with gusto, I can say with certainty that I love it. (How could I not? I get to hear myself talk for an hour straight.) Immediately, it felt like a pricey, businesslike vent sesh, and one of those things I kicked myself for not having subscribed to much earlier in life. Therapy was therapeutic! Cleansing! Great self care!
Until it wasn’t.
I mean, not that it wasn’t therapeutic or cleansing or self care. It just wasn’t…fun anymore. In fact, it led me to wonder whether therapy makes me feel worse. I wasn’t simply just feeling sad after each session; I would leave appointments emotionally fatigued and melancholic. And, despite having been warned about therapy hangovers, I was starting to get concerned.
So here’s the thing: Many of us go through life holding in our emotions, feeling more comfortable with internally ruminating than speaking out loud and being possibly judged, misunderstood, and wrong.
“Typically in therapy, your first few sessions are an initial consultation, which means you’re sharing your history with the therapist, and they’re also getting to know you,” says psychotherapist Jennifer Silvershein, LCSW. “This may be the first time you’ve been given the space to completely focus on yourself without feeling like you need to allow the other person to share. It’s an amazing feeling”
Basically, since we love talking about ourselves, this initial stage of therapy presents a honeymoon period of sorts. It actually feels good to talk about ourselves, because self-focused responses come from the area of the brain that’s associated with reward. It’s the pleasure center associated with other great things, like good food and sex. So therapy is such a high at first because of that rush.
“Therapy is about having a space to share your feelings and process but also to be challenged, learn new skills, and grow. Having your behaviors or thoughts reflected back at you or challenged can be exhausting.” —psychotherapist Jennifer Silvershein, LCSW
The switch that makes you say ‘therapy makes me feel worse,’ Silvershein says, happens once you’ve settled into a routine, shared your history, and the true work begins. “Therapy is about having a space to share your feelings and process but also a space to be challenged, learn new skills, and grow. Learning something new or adjusting your mind-set takes hard work,” Silvershein says. “This hard work of having your behaviors or thoughts reflected back at you or challenged can be exhausting.”
That exhaustion can be of the seriously emotional kind—and a very common reason why some people stop treatment. You forget that it’s supposed to be hard work, and then you just want to not do it anymore. It’s important, though, to not get discouraged and jump off the train while it’s still in motion. There probably will be days when therapy does have a positive catharsis. It’s just, um, not every day, for sure.
To help people handle the productive yet counterintuitive mood swings, Silvershein recommends giving yourself the time-and-space buffer to move in and out of your therapy mind-set. “I always recommend clients arrive a few minutes before session to settle in and relax to get ready to dive into therapy and also encourage them to give them a few minutes to prepare to re-enter their normal lives after session,” she says. “I also love to encourage clients to walk it off. Walking instead of hopping on the subway with a bunch of strangers allows us to relax and settle back in to the real world.” And pro-tip: Journaling can facilitate having effective reflections about what’s on deck for future sessions. Feeling emotionally prepared can help tame would-be therapy hangovers.
There is a silver lining to therapy hangovers though: Feeling anything is a good sign you are putting in the hard work and are on the right path. “If therapy feels exhausting, it means you’re making authentic change,” Silvershein says.
Still nervous about getting to therapy in the first place? Here’s what one no-nonsense therapist says to expect from your first therapy session. And here’s a rundown of people who should not be your therapist.
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