Feeling fatigued and fuzzy-headed? It could be an 'emotional hangover'

emotional hangover
Ever experienced an 'emotional hangover?'JulPo - Getty Images

You wake up feeling drained, lethargic, fuzzy-headed – perhaps even a little nauseous – but you didn’t drink last night, and you don’t *think* you’ve been struck down by a virus. So, what could be going on? Well, if you had a nasty argument with a loved one, a stressful work bust-up with a colleague or even had to deal with a stranger getting irate with you on public transport the day before, you might just have an emotional hangover.

Although 'emotional hangover' is very much not a clinical term, 'many people will understand the concept that we can become emotionally and physically drained from [emotionally-charged] interactions at times,' explains Tara Quinn-Cirillo, a chartered psychologist.

Whereas alcohol-related hangovers take at least a few hours to kick in, the emotional variety can begin more quickly. Furthermore, they 'can last anything from a few minutes to several days,' says Felicity Baker, a clinical psychologist and co-founder at workplace wellbeing provider Ultimate Resilience.

What causes emotional hangovers?

Emotional hangovers can result from various stressful scenarios, such as an argument, a hard day at work, an unexpected financial burden, or even just watching a heart-rending movie.

'I definitely get [emotional] hangovers from discussions with family and friends about serious, emotional decisions or problems,' shares Amy, 27, from Pontypool in Wales. Her symptoms are magnified, she adds, if she has to 'hold in' her feelings during such situations. For her, the impacts are experienced with speed.

'I feel quite tired immediately afterwards, then the next day I'll wake up with "brain fog," even if I've had a full night’s sleep,' she says. 'I'm more easily distracted and likely to procrastinate, too.'

Unsurprisingly, therapy sessions are another cause. 'Every week I attend therapy, and I'm really looking at some deep, dark stuff,' Deb, 47, from Lewes in East Sussex, reveals. 'I feel absolutely emotionally drained afterwards, to the extent that it really does feel like a physical hangover.' For her, depending on 'how much emotional energy I’ve spent', the effects can last a full day or longer.

Interactions with strangers can also be a prompt, says Baker — such as 'dealing with an angry client at work or aggression from another driver during your commute.'

But it’s not only negative experiences that have the potential to trigger emotional hangovers. Positive and happy times can have the same effect, and this is something both Amy and Deb say they have experienced.

Dr Quinn-Cirillo says both 'good' and 'bad' experiences can impact you because it’s not only the content that counts, but also intensity and duration. Particularly in social situations, 'It's important to note that the "size" of the event isn’t the main thing,' she adds. 'It’s the effort you put into engaging and processing interaction with others.'

The physiological aspect of emotional hangovers

It’s well-known that stressful situations can cause the body’s fight-or-flight response to kick in, and a prolonged stress response is essentially what’s going on with emotional hangovers, says Dr Baker.

'When you initially encounter a threat or challenge, parts of the brain, the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, leap into action,' she explains. 'They are programmed to detect threats and act like a smoke alarm, alerting you to the threat before our conscious brain picks it up. This triggers the equivalent of "internal sprinklers" pumping adrenaline and cortisol through your body.'

Physical fight-or-flight symptoms (such as racing heartbeat and tingling sensations) can fade away more quickly, but 'often our emotional reaction continues for some time afterwards,' Dr Baker adds.

While everyone experiences cortisol rushes in stressful situations, some are more prone to developing an emotional hangover – such as those with a history of emotional or mental health difficulties, who have previously experienced trauma, or who possess more introverted personalities. Why? 'Because with pre-existing stress and distress, our baseline levels of adrenaline and cortisol are already raised,' says Dr Baker.

Deb recognises that her introverted nature makes her more prone to emotional hangovers, including after positive social experiences. 'The very action of being around people in any capacity is draining,' she states. 'Often, I need a couple of days to rest after any kind of socialising.'

Ways to prevent and overcome emotional hangovers

You might drink less alcohol to minimise your hangover symptoms, but can you do anything to overcome emotional hangovers — or stop them from happening in the first place? While there’s (unfortunately) no foolproof method, various approaches may aid in keeping you on track during and after an intense event.

Manage your response in the moment

Using strategies to regulate your reaction during the situation can help prevent an emotional hangover from developing, says Dr Baker. She suggests trying slow and steady breathing or a short mindfulness exercise, as this will 'reduce sympathetic nervous system activity.'

Recognise potential triggers and plan accordingly

Doing this is important, says Dr Quinn-Cirillo, as it can help you curtail the fallout. For instance, if you have a regular commitment (such as therapy) that you know will take an emotional toll: 'Are you able to plan decompression time after or put in boundaries to reduce the impact?' she asks.

Focus on positives

If a negative experience has prompted your emotional hangover, switch your mindset to something happier. 'Shifting your attention away from negative thoughts associated with the situation can help,' reveals Dr Baker. 'Perhaps try bringing to mind something that’s going well in your life or looking at photos of past pleasurable experiences.'

Don’t hold in your feelings

If you’re already feeling crappy, having a good cry might feel counterintuitive. However, Dr Quinn-Cirillo states that letting out our emotions is a natural way to 'self-soothe' in times of anxiety and fatigue. When you cry, she says, 'you produce chemicals that help you to calm and reduce distress.'

Give yourself some TLC

A key tactic, says Dr Quinn-Cirillo, involves taking some time alone and rescheduling plans if required. Deb finds that quiet rest helps ease her symptoms, and, 'if I can take a nap, I will. It's not always possible, but it does help a lot,' she says.

Get moving

If you feel drained and nauseous, the last thing you’ll want to do is a HIIT workout. However, our minds and bodies are closely linked, says Dr Quinn-Cirillo, so gentle movement (like a walk or yoga session) can aid you in feeling better. 'Anywhere you can access a green space and fresh air is good,' she adds.

Hopefully, one or more of these approaches will help you pull through your next emotional hangover. But, if 'you’re struggling with intense and prolonged emotional fatigue, especially after any traumatic event, please seek professional help,' Dr Quinn-Cirillo urges.

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