When we feel intense emotions, it can be tempting to give them an expiry date and expect that once the rush of feeling is over that it’s, well, over. It makes things simpler to see them as isolated – we can cope with a stressful day at work, or a bad week, or a rough patch. The appeal is easy to see – we can contain those tricky emotions within a specified time period and after that they’re gone. The problem is that, as with most things, it’s never as simple as that.
It’s easy to find ourselves saying ‘I don’t know why I’m so tired/ grumpy/ sad today’ when, if we flip back a few pages, we’ll find difficult feelings and experiences that we have compartmentalised and then thoroughly ignored. Now, this is most definitely not something to blame ourselves for. House rule number one applies here: don’t beat yourself up. Putting our problems in boxes is very natural; pain often provokes coping strategies that involve distancing ourselves from it’s cause. No-one likes to be hurt, or stressed or angry. Whilst that instinct is self-preservative, it can also come back to bite us in the bum.
When we experience what I call an “emotional hangover”, everything can feel really out of whack. We wonder where the malaise came from and why it’s turned us into the walking dead. It can be frustrating, especially when we have tried to parcel up our emotions into an allotted time. But, trauma has a tendency to bleed out into our everyday lives if we don’t or can’t deal with it effectively. That’s not always within our control, so how can we process these difficulties when they don’t stay neatly holed up?
The cure is knowing that there is no cure, and being able to accept that. There’s no amount of tabasco sauce or lucozade or fry-ups that will magically bust you out of your hangover. Emotional trauma and negative feelings don’t naturally work their way out of your body the way that alcohol does short term. Mental distress, just like any type of illness or long term substance abuse will leave a trace behind. If you drink too much alcohol too often for too long, your liver won’t be thanking you. Keeping a lot of pent up rage and pain has a similar effect on your whole body and mind. Hurt needs an outlet and some time to be released in a healthy way.
So, here’s what you’ll need to deal with an emotional hangover:
- Patience and lots of it. There isn’t a quick fix or a magic pill, so being able to be patient with the process of healing is massively important. And quite tricky. Just remind yourself that it’s ok for it to take just as long as it needs.
- Time to spend with yourself. If you can predict it, schedule some time in advance to de-compress after a stressful situation. If that’s not possible, take a conscious 5 minute break to stretch, chew some gum, have a peaceful cup of tea, wash your face – it is not so important what you do, but that you do it with the intention of being with and soothing the difficult emotions.
- Compassion for yourself. Emotional hangovers are painful and complex things. It might take a few hours or even months to lift, so be gentle with yourself. We are often capable of great compassion for other people but find extending that same courtesy to ourselves difficult (or we don’t even realise that we can and should do it!).
In real terms, what do these things mean? It means actively noting when you have unforgiving thoughts about yourself (i.e. ‘I should be over this by now’, ‘other people have worse problems than me’) and challenging them! A counsellor or a close friend can help you with this. It means sleeping when your mind is running on empty. Get your 8 hours, or more if you need it. It means paying attention to what you’re spending time doing and seeing if it’s working for you (if you find being around a lot of people very tiring, don’t feel bad when you want a night in, or vice versa, if cabin fever is biting your ankles, get out and about). Think about and treat yourself as you would your best friend – you wouldn’t tell them to just get over it, so don’t mistreat yourself that way!
Take your time, be kind and be patient!