"I feel so drained," is a pretty normal reaction to a conversation or experience that really tests your emotional capacity. It could be a breakup, a drunken fight, or even just road rage that causes this helpless, depleted feeling — and sometimes it feels as bad on your brain and body as an alcohol hangover. But what is this feeling?
Emotional hangovers are totally a thing, and though they're usually reported anecdotally, cognition researchers say there's a neurological reason why some events just linger in your mind.
"One thing we know [brain] arousal does, is it increases memory, so you remember emotional events more than neutral ones," says Lila Davachi, PhD, an associate professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and Centre for Neural Science, and senior author of a study that supports this theory. In other words, when you have an emotional experience, there's a block of time after the event when your brain tells your body to be in an aroused (emotionally, not sexually) state to basically be on-guard for other trauma. While it might not make you want to barf or sleep all day like an alcohol hangover, emotional hangovers stick with you because you remember emotional events better than unexceptional ones, she says.
It's tough to say how long an emotional hangover can last (Dr. Davachi's study only measured participants' brain arousal for a half-hour after an emotional event), but Dr. Davachi says she's interested in figuring out how the effect would vary with different levels of emotional events. "An emotional event could be anything as simple as a bad interaction with someone on the street, to something as intense as going through a stressful board meeting or presentation in class," she says. "We don't really know the limit of these effects yet." They also didn't pinpoint exactly how it feels to have an "emotional hangover," but you're probably familiar with the pangs of dread or the feeling of being "on edge" after something bad happens.
In a perfect world, you'd be able to brush off these missteps and move along with your life — but that's not always the case. "It's a big problem with anxiety and trauma disorders, because instead of being adaptive, people can't get things out of their mind," she says. "It turns into thoughts you can't suppress." If you feel like you're still dealing with the emotional aftermath of something, rather than suppressing your feelings, it's worth it to seek out help from a professional counsellor who can help work through those feelings in a way that will truly help you heal.
If you are experiencing anxiety and are in need of support, please contact Samaritans on 116 123. All calls are free and will be answered in confidence.