The Big Drain: What To Do When Counselling Leaves Us Feeling Wiped Out
People range in their experiences of a counselling session. Common comments at the end of a therapy session include:
- “It was good to talk.”
- “I feel a lot better”
- “I have a lot to think about now.”
Others might say things like:
- “I feel like I need to take a nap.”
- “I’m going to go home and relax now.”
- “Wow, we got through a lot today!”
These last three comments reflect the reality that for some of us, a counselling session can leave us feeling wiped out. Not everyone experiences this and some that have may not feel this way every time, or even most times for that matter.
This article is for anyone who has felt wiped by a counselling session and wondered about it, or for those who might be holding back from counselling because of this fear. Some of us are even surprised if we have an experience like this.
I’d like to touch on a few key questions related to feeling emotionally drained in counselling:
- What does this experience look like?
- Why might this happen?
- What can be done to help?
Introducing ‘The Big Drain’
I’d like to start with an important caveat: in this article feeling drained after a counselling session is not synonymous with feeling overwhelmed, or experiencing anxiety so significant that it results in panic or dissociation. If you are experiencing significant anxiety as a result of a counselling session, please speak with your therapist about your concerns if this feels like a safe option for you. If it does not, please reach out to someone you trust or think about working working with a different therapist, if this is an alternative available to you. Sometimes you might even consider alternatives to counselling if you’re questioning whether counselling is the right choice for you.
Many times the experience of feeling drained comes later in the counselling session or soon after it’s over, although sometimes we may feel like that part-way through the counselling session.
Understanding ‘The Big Drain’
There can be a number of factors which could contribute to feeling drained in counselling. And some of us who experience it may worry that something’s wrong. Not necessarily! In many cases it can actually be a positive development. Let’s take a look.
Orienting to Counselling
Attending counselling for the first time with a new therapist, even if you have been to counselling before, is asking a lot emotionally! There is a lot to take in: the decision to try counselling and carve out time in your life to schedule it, coming up with the money to do so, choosing and meeting the therapist, finding and being in their office, and your gut instinct of whether or not you feel comfortable and safe with the therapist and in their office environment.
It’s a fact that many of us come to counselling for assistance in navigating aspects of our situation that feel too challenging to handle on our own. Before seeking counselling, we may settle on avoidance or another strategy in an effort to manage our overwhelm but reach for counselling when it becomes clear that our chosen method(s) is no longer working to our benefit. If issues have been shelved for some time, addressing them in counselling can be draining—particularly if our coping has also included bottling things up emotionally which subsequently get released in a session. This is very normal and expected!
Some topics may also make us feel more drained in a counselling session, although the issues vary in their impact, person to person.
Examples may include:
- Trauma, including historical trauma and current experiences of oppression or violence
- Addictions struggles
- Grief and loss
- Anxiety, including panic, generalized anxiety and social anxiety
- Eating issues
- Crises and/or overwhelming current circumstances / major life transitions
Openness in Counselling
Being transparent in counselling, if trust exists in the therapeutic relationship, can improve success in counselling because the therapist will have a more complete picture of what is going on in the client’s life and can tailor strategies according to this fuller understanding. When openness is practiced over time, many clients also learn to effectively move through difficult topics and as a result, may feel more comfortable, confident and secure.
Many of us seek counselling when piled-up issues now feel urgent. Clients may explain this to the counsellor by expressing “I have a lot going on.” Sometimes, counselling clients may have the worry that they “need to get it out” all at once, fuelled by this sense of urgency. For some, doing so can lead to a sense of relief but for others, there may be an increase in overwhelm or feeling more scattered. Such feelings can contribute to The Big Drain.
When anxiety LINK is a factor, and our nervous system is keyed up as a result, we may find ourselves speeding up over the course of a counselling session. We may have a goal of trying to cover as many issues as are bothering us, which may or may not be realistic, given the length of the session that has been reserved. Talking quickly, when we try to cram things in, takes more energy, is more intense, and results in less verbal back and forth with the therapist; this may inadvertently limit feedback that could help ground and calm us.
Dealing With ‘The Big Drain’
Sometimes no help is needed. Counselling clients might have felt like they have experienced a very tiring (albeit satisfying) release.
But if you’re finding yourself wondering about how to deal with The Drain, some of the following tips may help:
Find a Session Length That is Right for You
Many therapists offer several counselling session-length options, typically ranging from 25 minutes to 2 hours. Some of us benefit most from a shorter session (50/60 minutes or less) because less time to talk may feel less overwhelming. For others, a longer session (75 minutes or more) feels less spacious and relaxing.
Communicate With Your Therapist
Let your therapist know if you are feeling overly drained (and certainly, have this conversation with your counsellor if your anxiety skyrockets after a session). Such conversations generally work best in person or over the telephone; email is not a secure medium for communicating sensitive and confidential information and it is difficult to process and resolve issues this way.
Have a Focus for the Session
Some people like to think about this before their session and communicate this to their therapist; others may request the therapist’s assistance to develop a focus; together client and therapist can work together to stay on topic as the session progresses.
If Experiencing The Big Drain is a Pattern…
If possible, consider scheduling a period of time with no major commitments or responsibilities after your session. Incorporate a rest if this is an option.
Creating a Bridge
Have a ‘step down’ or transitional routine for after your therapy that will bridge you to the next part of your day. Some people find this through walking, sitting for a short time in a quiet coffee shop or doing something present-orienting such as reviewing the day’s schedule.
Have a Self-Care Repertoire
Having some tangible self-care options on hand can be just the ticket when we’re feeling drained. Over the years, I’ve often suggested clients assemble a ‘coping basket’ with several self-caring items or reminder notes that are to be used when a coping strategy is needed. This could include a favourite book, special tea bags, a reminder to call a good friend, etc.
Understand that feeling drained in counselling is, more often than not, a normal thing and a sign of the effort you have put into the counselling session. If it’s gone beyond this for you, consider booking a sooner follow-up session with your therapist if you feel you need more support or collaborate with them on other supports that you could access in between sessions.
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