The benefits of feeling seen and heard in life, and in therapy, have an incredibly positive effect on helping each of us cope through stressful or uncertain times. In fact, when it comes to what makes your therapy sessions the most effective, it’s the therapeutic rapport—feeling heard, seen and understood by your therapist—that predicts success.
The good news? The format of the session doesn’t impact the outcome. That means that while in-person sessions may be on hold for the time being, our video and telephone sessions have just as positive an impact as the times we spend sitting in the same room. The great news? Doing the session from the comfort of your home can increase feelings of being seen.
As therapists, we are used to seeing you and learning all about your loved ones, hobbies and spaces you feel safe in. Although remote therapy may lead you to feel vulnerable initially, it also allows you to deepen that feeling of connectedness with your therapist. How cool is it that you can be right there, comfortable in your quiet space, while your roommates or family do their own thing in another room? I think it’s great. The flip side of that is that your therapist too feels seen. You will see me at my home office, my taste in artwork or my pets wandering around in the room. While we could see these as distractions, we could also reframe that and use these changes as a way to deepen our relationship.
Needless to say, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of feeling seen as the world changes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The power of being able to share a moment of vulnerability can also be a powerful therapeutic experience. This can help us feel more safe and secure which is super helpful at a time when many of us feel confused, isolated, or in chaos.
In my work, I find tremendous growth occurs when we are pushed outside of our comfort zones. I’ve been privileged to witness this happening more than ever this week. From clients who have never used a webcam in their life, or those that were anxious to turn on their webcam for fear of me seeing them in their comfy clothes, we’ve moved through the fear together. We’ve broken down barriers to connection, perceptions of what “should” be, and embraced the ‘what is.’ How freeing was it to come away from a session with a sense of lightness for both of us, almost forgetting the anxiety that preceded only 60 minutes prior?
If you are a current client or a brand new client, I encourage you to challenge yourself to show up as you are in our new social formats. By doing so, you may not only feel connected to your world but may hopefully also feel more connected to yourself.
There can be a lot of mixed emotions you may feel leading 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.
What is an emotional hangover?
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.
Why does this happen?
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.
Does everyone get it?
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.
What can I do about it?
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.
Try to Remember
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.
Jaylin Bradbury is our Clinical Director, responsible for leading our team of exceptional clinicians at Shift Collab.
Counselling is an interactive process wherein you identify your goals and you work toward them together with the counsellor in a safe, supportive, non-judgmental environment. Anything that you share is confidential—kept between you and the counsellor—with some limitations for safety reasons.
Talking to a Stranger
The main focus of counselling is YOU. Sometimes people find it odd to discuss their most personal problems with a complete stranger that they know almost nothing about. But that’s where the beauty of counselling lies—as opposed to talking to a friend or family member, a counsellor offers an outside, third-party point of view. Your counsellor won’t change the subject or start talking about themselves instead. They won’t belittle or judge you, and they can help you at whatever pace works best for you. They might be able to offer options both personally and professionally that you may not know existed. Even though your counsellor will not be a “friend,” a close relationship of a different kind is often developed, where trust, acceptance, and support are key components.
The First Session
For your counsellor, the first session is mainly about getting to know you and learning some background information about you. For you, it’s about getting comfortable talking to your counsellor, and it’s about getting to know one another.
After the first session, you will be asked if you would like to continue counselling, and a second appointment will be booked. It is generally best to stay with the same counsellor because you will have a relationship with them and they will know you, your story, and the plan that you have worked out together.
Types of Counselling
Counselling is often referred to colloquially as “talk therapy,” and while simply talking about problems or issues can indeed be therapeutic in itself, counselling also takes on other forms, such as Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). These are different approaches to counselling that might be used to best help you reach your goals.
Solution-Focused Brief Therapy looks at finding solutions to problems and working on imaging other ways to reach your goals. This is typically a shorter-term method of counselling often used in conjunction with other approaches. By helping you identify what you might want to change in your life as well as what you might wish to have happen in the future, SFBT can help you to create a vision of a preferred future for yourself.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is an approach that helps you look at the thoughts behind your emotions, where these thoughts might have come from, and how accurate they might be. Often times, if we don’t analyze and challenge our automatic thoughts, they can take on unhelpful forms that impede on our way of living and get in the way of achieving our goals. Sometimes we may not even be aware of these thoughts, let alone that they could be untrue. CBT can help you identify more helpful ways of thinking that can then change how you are feeling.
Your counsellor may use these or a number of other approaches to help you achieve your goals. Always feel free to ask your counsellor about their approach or ask them any other questions as you go forward with your sessions.
What kind of issues can a counsellor help me with?
Counsellors can help with a wide range of personal concerns, including coping with anxiety and/or stress, doing better in your courses or at work, time management, learning strategies, homesickness and transition to changes, financial problems, feelings of depression or sadness, body image and eating disorders, self-harm or suicidal feelings, coping with loss and grief, relationship and family issues, sexuality concerns, getting control of your drinking or drug use, confidence and self esteem, working effectively in groups and teams, anger/conflict, problem-solving around issues (advocacy), etc.
Myth: Only “crazy” people or people with severe issues receive psychotherapy.
Every day people seek therapy for a range of reasons. Some pursue psychotherapy for treatment of anxiety, depression or other disorders. Others want help coping with life stressors or transitions, like school challenges, the loss of a job or a loved one, stress, or conflict at work. Others may need help managing and balancing work and family responsibilities, coping with an aging parent, or improving relationship skills. By learning problem-solving skills and coping strategies, anyone (young and old) can benefit from psychotherapy.
Myth: Social Workers only work in Hospitals, Schools, and for a Children’s Aid Society.
Registered Social Workers work in a variety of settings and have different and unique areas of specialty. While Social Workers do work in the above settings, they are not limited to those places. Social Workers can also provide Psychotherapy (also called counselling or talk therapy). Social Workers who work as Clinical Therapists, providing Psychotherapy, have schooling, training and certifications that enable them to do this work. However, unlike a Psychologist, Social Workers can neither diagnose clients with disorders nor prescribe medication, like a Psychiatrist. Therefore, Social Workers often offer lower rates for therapy and are more accessible in the community. For now, Registered Social Worker Psychotherapy services are not covered under OHIP. Hopefully, as our societies and governments recognize the importance of a range of mental health care services, this will change.
Myth: Talking to family members or friends can be just as helpful as going to a Social Worker/Provider of Psychotherapy.
When you’re having a difficult time, support from trusted family and friends is very beneficial. Friends, families, and therapists can provide similar but also different types of support. Talking with a Clinical Social Worker can be helpful because they have a Master’s Degree of Social Work. This means they have specialized training, knowledge and experience that make them experts in treating and understanding complex problems. Therapists can be there when you feel like you don’t have anyone to talk to, but therapy is also more than someone listening or offering advice. Clinical Social Workers can help identify and address behaviors, thought patterns and broader structures that may be negatively impacting coping or decision-making. Therapists are also a neutral party, providing an unbiased and open space to talk through complex, sensitive issues in a confidential setting.
Being sixteen is hard; as an eleventh grader, I was no exception to that rule. Aside from the normal struggles of school, awkward body transformations and the angsty “who am I” phase all teens endure, I had a number of other struggles during that period of my life.
As a teenager, I was constantly obsessing over what the people around me were thinking. Did they notice that I had accidentally made a wrong turn on my way to class? Why did it feel like everyone was staring at me? I’m sure that group of girls was definitely whispering about me. Being in a building flooded with peers was incredibly stressful, and my heart would race for what felt like full hours while I drove myself crazy throughout the day.
As this thought pattern continued (and worsened) I quickly began to isolate myself from my peers. At the time it had felt easier than facing the stress of human interaction. During my lunch hours, I got in my car and drove around by myself. I wouldn’t make plans with anyone, and I quickly became very lonely. All that “me-time” really did was give me more opportunities to destroy my own self-esteem, and I quickly became an incredibly sad person.
I would come home from school and lie in bed, blasting heavy metal music that I hated, just to try and drown out the awful thoughts that I couldn’t seem to escape. I never slept, and the lack of rest eventually took the greatest toll of all. Some days I felt like I couldn’t function, and when I did manage to sleep, I was plagued by nightmares. To boot, sleep paralysis entered my life, and I started my days by screaming and crying at the top of my lungs, unable to move my limbs, frozen in bed staring at the ceiling.
As you may have guessed by now, what I was experiencing were the effects of an anxiety disorder.
And then I found therapy. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to be exact, and it changed everything.
I had been to counselling as a child and had expected therapy to be the same type of thing. Endlessly talking about my problems and having someone sit there, listen, nod a little and hand me tissues when necessary. Nope. Therapy is work. Sometimes hard work, but that work pays off.
My therapist helped me set goals and develop strategies to beat my anxiety. In some ways, it felt like she helped me hit reset on my brain. We did worksheets and projects, she gave me apps to try and resources to use. More than anything she helped me understand and unravel the intricacies of my mental wellness challenges by helping me connect my thoughts, feelings, and actions so that I could spot patterns.
Understanding the things your brain is doing (and the things you don’t even realize your brain is doing) is key to overcoming challenges like this. Therapy didn’t make me feel “less sad” or “less lonely”. It wasn’t about fixing damage that had been done, it was about completely rebuilding so that I had a new, strong foundation to move forward with.
Before therapy, my grades had slipped from A’s to barely passing. The idea of university petrified me, and I didn’t even want to apply to schools. I didn’t really care about graduating high school at all. But as I learned new coping techniques things improved. By the time I was in grade twelve I wasn’t just doing well, I was studying to take my ACT’s and applying to schools in New York. I ended up graduating as an Ontario Scholar with my bilingual certificate and getting into my first pick school.
When my anxiety peaked, I had been fired from my part-time job because I was completely unreliable. Panic attacks would grip me at random moments, leaving me useless. I had even blacked out from forgetting to breathe for too long. CBT taught me to recognize my triggers, stop anxious thoughts in their tracks and talk myself down from panic attacks when they did sneak up on me.
I got a new job, and even though I was still in high school working only part-time, my manager recognized me for my strong work ethic and enthusiasm. She invested in me and helped build my resume and expand my skill set by letting me lead projects and test out different leadership roles.
In the years to come, she would eventually move on to work for a speaking agency who specialized in mental health programming for students and young adults. When asked to scout new hires she remembered me, and in my second year of university, I was given the opportunity to interview with the Director. I got the job.
Since that torturous time in high school I’ve travelled alone to New Zealand for five months, developed meaningful relationships with people I love, and have turned into someone who wakes up well-rested (most days) and happy.
I work for a company I love, where I get to facilitate wellness workshops, send brilliant mental health programs to high schools and universities all over the continent and help connect people with the help they need.
I am still hit with bouts of anxiety, and panic attacks are still something I cope with, but none of that controls my life anymore. And I owe it all to therapy.