6 Ways to Help Your Depressed Spouse Through the Holidays

Depression is a serious mental illness that is often triggered or worsened by the holiday season. If your spouse is struggling during this time of year, whether or not they have been diagnosed in the past with depression, you can be supportive and help them cope in healthy ways. Watch for signs of depression and talk to your spouse if you see these signs. Help them manage expectations for this stressful time, encourage some social interaction, and get professional support if needed.

Your spouse may have been diagnosed and struggling with depression for years. Maybe they are only just now showing signs of feeling low. The holiday season can trigger depression in those who have never really experienced it seriously in the past. It can also worsen symptoms or bring on episodes in people who have been managing it for some time. As the partner of someone like this, there are things you can do to help them cope and get professional help if needed.

The Holidays Increase Depression Risk

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the holiday season worsens mental health issues for many. A survey conducted by the group found that 64 percent of people with mental illnesses say that this time of year increases their symptoms.

There are many reasons that mental health deteriorates and depression worsens at this time of year. Another survey, conducted by the American Psychological Association, found that many people feel fatigued, stressed, irritable, and sad during the holidays. Many also report added stress from money issues, lacking time, family gatherings, and pressure to give gifts.

Also at issue at the holidays is the persistence of expectations. It’s easy to get caught up in making everything perfect, attending every party, and being joyful, especially when you see it all around you. But if your reality doesn’t match that perfect ideal, it can trigger depression.

How to Support a Spouse

If your partner is someone who struggles with depression any time of year, it’s important to watch for signs of a new episode or of symptoms worsening. You can help by being aware, by providing unconditional support, and by pushing for treatment if it seems necessary. Here are six practical things to do to help and support your spouse right now.

1. Know and Watch for All Signs of Depression, Including the Subtle Ones

You know your spouse better than anyone, and if they have been coping with depression for a while you probably also know their specific triggers and signs. At this time of year, it is especially important to watch for those signs. You’re busy and likely to be distracted but be on the lookout. For the person going through depression it can be really difficult to recognize that symptoms have appeared or worsened. Some of the signs of depression that aren’t so obvious include:

  • Mood swings, angry outbursts, agitation, restlessness, or excessive irritability
  • Loss of interest in the seasonal activities
  • Changes in sleeping or eating patterns, weight gain or loss
  • Difficulty concentrating or getting normal chores and tasks done
  • Social isolation
  • Physical problems that have no obvious explanation, including pain, indigestion, fatigue or headaches

Sometimes simply being aware is enough to help someone take the steps needed to feel better. Seeing a therapist, returning to therapy, or talking to a doctor about medication changes are all positive steps once your spouse realizes their depression has returned.

2. Talk About and Manage Expectations

The pressure to be happy, to give the best gifts, to be at all the parties and social engagements can be overwhelming even for someone in good mental health. For someone struggling with depression, these expectations can lead to a breaking point.

Let your spouse know that you don’t have expectations for them. If they don’t feel up to the office party, you can skip it or just go for a short, prescribed period of time. If gift giving is too much stress and pressure, agree to donate money to charity instead.

3. Engage in Healthy Lifestyle Habits Together

It’s easy to self-medicate in any number of ways when feeling depressed. Most of these strategies are unhealthy, such as isolating, drinking too much, or even turning to drugs. While a healthy lifestyle is no cure for depression, practicing good habits promotes good physical and mental health. It can also help your spouse feel more in control.

Set up a routine and even rules for certain healthy habits. For instance, get up and go to bed at the same time every night, aiming for seven to eight hours of sleep. Prepare healthy meals together and avoid or limit the usual holiday sweets. Get outside together every day for exercise, fresh air, and a dose of healing nature. If alcohol is something your spouse often turns to in an attempt to cope, give up drinking for the holidays together.

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4. Push for Reasonable Socializing

Your spouse may not be up for as much socializing as you are, and that’s ok. But you also want them to avoid isolating from friends and family. Depression often causes people to withdraw, but social interactions are good for mental health and for managing depression symptoms.

Don’t let your partner skip out on every event. Pick a few that will be most comfortable, such as small gatherings with friends or family parties if they get along with everyone. Help encourage your spouse to get involved socially by setting limits. Tell them you’ll go for just one hour. If they want to leave at that point, agree to it, but if they’re feeling better you can stay.

5. Know When It’s Time for Professional Support

You may be a loving spouse, but there are limits to what you can do to help your partner with depression. Be prepared to admit that you may not be able to handle their holiday moods and that they need more dedicated, professional help than you can provide.

If your spouse is talking about self-harm or suicide or has symptoms that are worsening and severe, consider helping them get into treatment. No one really wants to spend the holidays in treatment, but it could be the best answer for your spouse. A residential facility can provide a safe place to not only heal and get better, but also to ride out this very difficult time of year.

6. Take Care of Yourself Too

Your mental health is important, too, even if you don’t have a diagnosed mental illness. The holidays may trigger sadness or stress, especially if you see your partner struggling. Don’t forget to manage your own mental health right now. Sometimes that may seem selfish, but if you need to leave your spouse at home to go to a party or listen to Christmas music when they’re not in the mood, you can.

Rely on your support network during this difficult time. Let another loved one pitch in to help get holiday chores done. Go out for a chat with a trusted friend. Spend some time doing an activity you enjoy, even if it means you put off wrapping gifts or buy store-bought cookies. You can only help support your partner if you are healthy, so put time and effort into your own well-being.

The holiday season is supposed to be joyful, festive, and fun. This is part of the problem. Struggling with depression right now may seem odd, but it is not at all unusual. Make sure your spouse understands that and also knows that they have your support and love.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with depression and other mental health issues and co-occurring substance use disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles programs and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.