“Depending on the nature of the appointment, a psychotherapy session can leave you feeling invigorated, blasé, drained, or somewhere in between,” says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of Joy From Fear. “But emotionally intense therapy sessions—while often exactly what your psyche needs to create change—can be downright exhausting.”
“Emotionally intense therapy sessions—while often exactly what your psyche needs to create change—can be exhausting.” —Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist
In that scenario, practicing self-care isn’t just a helpful tool for moving forward with your day, but also, a vital one for integrating the therapeutic work you’ve just done and processing the resulting feelings, says clinical psychologist Jennifer Mullan, PsyD, author of forthcoming book Decolonizing Therapy. “Often, we feel the need to keep these feelings down, down, down as a way to cope,” she says, referring to her own previous tendency to sandwich therapy between other meetings, forcing herself to move on quickly. But breezing past the high-emotion moments of therapy just causes disconnection and disassociation, she says, rather than allowing effective processing.
- Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist, life fulfillment expert, and author of Date Smart, Joy From Fear, and Aging Joyfully
- Jennifer Mullan, PsyD, clinical psychologist, founder of Decolonizing Therapy, and author of Decolonizing Therapy: Oppression, Historical Trauma & Politicizing Your Practice
- Rachel Hoffman, LCSW, PhD, licensed clinical social worker and chief clinical officer at Real
- Sara Stanizai, LMFT, licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Prospect Therapy
It’s even easier to fall into that trap with virtual therapy, given that you could ostensibly click out of a therapy session and into a work meeting in seconds. Whereas with an in-person session, the commute to get to and from your therapist's office, the time you might spend in the waiting room, and any rituals you might do after a session (like, for example, stopping at a coffee shop near your therapist’s office) all naturally create room for integration, says psychotherapist Sara Stanizai, LMFT.
Setting up a couple of these downtime or transitional routines after a therapy session (whether it’s virtual or IRL) can ensure you’re practicing the self-care you need to process big feelings. Below, therapists share a few of their top recommendations for doing just that.
7 ways to practice self-care and emotionally wind down after an intense therapy session
1. Move your body
Doing something physical can feel restorative after an emotional experience. “Even a short walk around the block can help get your blood flowing and energy moving again post-therapy,” says clinical psychologist Rachel Hoffman, PhD, LCSW, chief clinical officer at mental wellness platform Real.
At the same time, aerobic exercise of any sort—like walking, running, dancing, biking, etc.—has the power to raise your levels of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin (bonus if you’re doing it outside in the sun, which can have a similar effect). And more serotonin coursing through your body can, in turn, help you manage the feelings of a tough therapy hangover.
2. Put your feelings on paper
Doing a “brain dump” can be another form of self-care after therapy, according to Dr. Hoffman and Stanizai. Essentially, this just means emptying all the thoughts, feelings, and concerns from your head onto paper. “Write down the things that stuck out to you or that you want to remember, the things you didn’t get to ask or mention, and anything you want to bring up in your next session,” suggests Stanizai. Doing so can ensure you hold onto the things you don’t want to forget while still allowing your brain to release ruminating thoughts, says Dr. Hoffman.
3. Do anything that relaxes you
Self-care after therapy can look much like any form of self-care you might otherwise practice to unwind, says Dr. Manly: “The goal is simply to allow your body, mind, and spirit space to recalibrate.” Among the recommendations from the experts: taking a bath, curling up on the couch, cooking yourself a nourishing meal, spending time in nature, coloring, doodling, and deep breathing. It’s about finding and practicing what really feels good to you, says Dr. Mullan.
One important caveat is that it’s best not to get too escapist with whatever relaxing activity you choose, says Stanizai. (So, a TV marathon or a deep social-media scrolling session are probably not the best choices here.) “It’s certainly not illegal to watch TV or have a glass of wine after a tough session, but you will see more progress if you can, instead, take a few moments to sit with whatever comes up rather than trying to avoid the feelings outright,” says Stanizai.
4. Create a short, repeatable post-therapy ritual
Having something that you religiously do after every therapy session can be a calming reprieve when a particularly intense one rolls around. This ritual can be as simple as getting that cup of coffee at the coffee shop next to your therapist’s office (or making one for yourself, if your therapy session is virtual), or, if you’re home, lighting a candle at the beginning of a session and blowing it out at the end, says Stanizai.
“Rituals are an excellent way to practice integration because they’re intentional, predictable, soothing, and let you tap into the part of you that acts without thinking,” she says. “This frees up your mind to process your therapy session.”
“Rituals are intentional, predictable, soothing, and let you tap into the part of you that ‘acts without thinking.’” —Sara Stanizai, LMFT, psychotherapist
Also, if you have a personal ritual in place, you can still practice it at your own speed even if you’re required to sign off or rush out from a therapy session in the middle of an emotional topic, says Stanizai. And if you don't have time right after your session, you can always do it at the end of the day instead, she says: “Simply knowing that you have that small ritual and focused ‘extension’ of your therapy session [in place for later] can help ground you in the time that follows a particularly intense session.”
5. Ground yourself, literally
You might actually find it soothing to get on the ground, says Dr. Manly. “Lying down on a hard surface, such as a bedroom floor or the floor of a quiet living room, can offer an extra dose of grounding after an intense session,” she says. She also suggests lying beneath a weighted blanket, which can provide a version of deep pressure stimulation that calms the nervous system.
6. Hum or sing a tune
Sure, it might feel a little silly at first, but humming or singing the tune of a song you love can quickly cut through emotional tension post-therapy in a few different ways, says Dr. Mullan. Humming, in particular, has been shown to increase the release of nitric oxide, she says, which acts as a bronchodilator and vasodilator—meaning, it opens up the airways and the blood vessels, increasing the circulation of oxygen throughout the body. Better circulation can, in turn, reduce blood pressure, which has a calming effect.
At the same time, singing and humming also creates vibrations in the vocal cords and inner ears that can stimulate the vagus nerve, which is a primary component of the soothing parasympathetic (aka rest and digest) nervous system.
7. Practice a calming visualization technique or mantra
If your therapy session left you with racing or spiraling thoughts, you might be best served by tackling them head on—that is, with a mental exercise geared toward compartmentalization. “Visualize placing any upsetting thoughts or feelings in a glass jar that has a tight-fitting lid,” suggests Dr. Manly. “Trust that the thoughts and feelings are being safely held in the glass jar until you feel ready to take them out one-by-one and address them.”
She also recommends quieting a relentless inner voice with a soothing mantra, such as, “You are strong, you are safe, you are free.” No matter the contents of the therapy session prior, a reassuring mantra like this one can bring you back to yourself and your reality. “Repeat the mantra as much as you like, allowing the soothing energy to wash over you,” she says.
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