Are you someone who firmly believes that divorce-related depression is nonsense? Are you and your spouse over making each other’s life harder and willing to have an amicable divorce as possible? Or do you belong to the majority of people who describe their divorce in the most macabre terms? In any case, divorce has a negative impact on human psyche and mostly results in depressive states of varying severity.
Statistics reveal that people experience mental health conditions, from mood swings to a number of other issues, for up to four years immediately after a break-up. The severity of post-divorce depression depends on the spouse’s mental health history, the difficulties they went through, and the manner in how they dealt with them.
No matter how civil you intend to behave during a divorce, it usually brings out the worst in people. Your brain undergoes cognitive dissonance – that is, what you believe and what you experience do not match. Your mind thinks, it is not OK to be divorced from a really awesome person, so your mind creates and acts to hate, and you’re not immune to it.
Apart from the emotions that you and your partner might experience in the process of a divorce, there will be a number of challenges that you need to adapt to. Separating from the spouse results in a change of living arrangements and social networks, adjustments in parenting practices, and a slump in financial situation of one (usually women) or both spouses. Furthermore, it also requires you to reflect on your self-identity and deal with the failure of your marriage.
If you feel that you cannot cope with the strain of a divorce, or if you have been enduring the stress for too long, this article will guide you on how to deal with depressive episodes and mood disorders.
Higher Depression Risks for Divorced Couples
Depression is a common issue for many modern people, with almost one in ten people suffering from it. Depression can be caused by genetic, environmental, psychological or physical factors. It can also be caused by stressful life events. Studies reveal a link between the breakdown of a marriage and its effect on emotional health.
Nationally representative cross-sectional and longitudinal studies from the United States, Canada, and Europe compared depression episodes in couples who experienced marital troubles but stayed together and those who divorced or separated. The report showed that the latter group had an increased risk of developing depression in about 12% of the cases along with a number of other mental health issues. Meanwhile, couples who remained in a relationship developed depression in only 3% of the cases.
Surprisingly, the loss of the partner is not the main cause of depression. Instead, the most aggravating factors are: loss of social ties, change in household income, age, and changed interaction with the children.
Due to gendered socialization, men and women have different patterns of reaction to divorce. As a result, depression hits them differently.
Gender differences affect the association between marital breakdown and depression.
There are studies that claim that divorced or separated women are three times more likely to report an episode of depression than those who remain married. In comparison, men are six times as more likely. But at the same time, depression figures generally claim that women are more prone to develop depressive episodes.
Meanwhile, it is difficult to attribute the effects of gender differences on gender per se strictly. In most cases, the reason behind different reactions to divorce in men and women lie in gender roles, social expectations, and gender socialization. Men are notoriously bad at expressing their emotions whereas women seem to bounce back more easily. This is due to women’s wider social ties and their ability to vent their emotions virtually to anyone if their close ones refuse to lend them an ear.
Therefore, it is most likely that men and women have similar rates of depression, but prescribed social roles often prevent men from reporting their mental health issues.
One of the most stressful aspects of a divorce is the change in parental responsibilities. Women have remained primary caregivers in many households. As a result, 34% of men see one or more of their children leave their household whereas for women it is only 3%.
Similarly, sociological reasons determine the fact that financially women are more vulnerable after a divorce. Economically, women are more often left in a less favorable position than they were before a divorce. Even when adjusted for household size, more women than men see their household income shrink. To compare, about 30% of divorced men and less than 10% of divorced women experience an improvement in their household income, adjusted for size.
Divorced couples tend to divide their extended family and mutual friends after a divorce. As a result, each estranged spouse’s social network gets narrower than before. Furthermore, the building and maintaining of social networks are also gender-determined in many families. Women traditionally are responsible for arranging dinners and maintaining contact with family members
As a result, divorced people report a decline in social support: 19% for men and 11% for women. In comparison, couples who remained in a relationship report a drop in social support of only 6% for men and 5% for women.
Is Divorce to Blame?
It is important to remark that it would be too much of an exaggeration to claim that only divorce is to blame for depression. Often divorce comes as a focal point for many other disruptions in a person’s life.
There is evidence that divorce is linked to the onset of depression independently from any other negative aspects of the spouses’ life. A divorce can trigger mood disorders in both men and women. However, the association is less pronounced than researchers used to think.
After the research took into consideration the mental health background, age, education, social networks, employment, number of children, and the effects of changes in income, the association between divorce or separation to depression was reduced. It concluded that men were three times as more likely to experience cases of depression as compared to non-divorced men whereas for women, the odds were 2.5 times as great. This is half as much as what researchers used to think.
The term ‘depression’ has been widely used in a loose manner. Depression can range from somewhat depressed moods where the individual can function but has no pleasure or interest in things to more severe cases where the individual can hardly find strength to complete routine actions, such as getting up in the morning, going shopping, washing, or eating.
Usually a lack of interest and motivation is followed by other symptoms of depression, such as a loss of appetite, sleep disturbance, decreased energy, difficulty concentrating, feelings of worthlessness, and/or suicidal thoughts. These symptoms must last for at least two weeks to be considered as signs of depression.
Most often, the mental condition that results from a divorce is a case of situational depression rather than clinical depression. However, both conditions are serious and should not be ignored.
Situational depression, usually defined as "adjustment disorder with depressed mood," is a short-term form of depression. As is seen from the name, it occurs as a result of a traumatic event or a change in a person's life, and can usually be treated through talk therapy. Divorce is one of the main triggers of situational depression. An individual’s depressive state occurs as a result of one’s inability to come to terms with the divorce. As soon as it happens and the individual adjusts to the new situation, symptoms of situational depression subside and disappear.
Clinical depression, usually defined as "major depressive disorder," can develop as a result of situational depression if left untreated. It is more severe than situational depression. As it stems from disturbances in the levels of neurotransmitters responsible for moods and the feeling of well-being.
For many people, the passage of time is enough for the symptoms of depression to weaken. Out of the divorced couples who observe depression for two-years afterwards, three-quarters did not report a continuation or onset of a depressive episode four years after the divorce.
It is possible to tell the difference between situational and clinical depression. If you observe symptoms such as: listlessness, feelings of hopelessness and sadness, difficulties sleeping, frequent episodes of crying, unfocused anxiety and worry, loss of concentration, withdrawal from normal activities as well as from family and friends, and suicidal thoughts within 90 days of the breakup or divorce, they are indicators of situational depression.
If you experience significantly reduced interest or no pleasure in activities; depressive mood or constant irritability; significant weight loss or weight gain; decrease or increase in appetite; tiredness or loss of energy; insomnia or increased desire to sleep; restlessness or slowed behavior; trouble concentrating; feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt; recurrent thoughts of death and/or, you most probably have clinical depression and need to see a doctor.
If you have had a depressive mood, suppressed appetite, change in sleep, lack of will and/or interest in things for at least for two weeks, it is important to seek consultation with a therapist. You can also find free online self-questionnaires (The Beck Depression Inventory). They are by no means a diagnostic tool, but they will orient you on what is going on.
It is important to remember: as soon as your depressive state starts to interfere with important areas of your life such as work, school, or your close ones, it is a signal that you have developed clinical depression and are in urgent need of medical treatment.
In any case, it is recommended to see a doctor when you discover symptoms of depression as it can indicate other illnesses. For example, thyroid gland diseases can produce symptoms similar to depression as a result of medication and the inflammatory process. When this happens, you will need to seek consultation from doctors other than just your therapist.
Why Should You Take Care of Your Depression?
There is a common misconception amongst people that depression is a result of someone just being sad and does not require medical attention. However, it is dangerous to think that post-divorce depression can heal on its own.
One can compare the loss of a spouse to the loss of a limb, and divorce to death (as sentiments are very strong in both cases).
However, the analogy at an amputation can be misleading. Close people grow side by side. It happens that as they grow into one another, a divorce can be felt like an amputation of a limb.
It would be more apt to find another metaphor for such a situation. If one of the spouses is dependent on the other and leans against them, it is like a wild grape clinging to a wooden pole. As soon as the pole is taken away, the grape drops on the ground. But it is not ‘broken’; it just needs to find support.
The best solution is to be able to support oneself. If both spouses are similarly independent and strong, a divorce will feel like having their arm broken – it’s painful but they can still function and keep on living.
To continue the analogy, imagine how your broken arm would heal without medical help. It would eventually health, but would take longer and be more painful. Meanwhile, a therapist or counselor can help you develop ways to cope with your negative emotions such as apathy and frustration.
The healthier you are mentally and emotionally, the faster you will recover from post-divorce blues. You will accept what has happened and get on with your life. You will learn to deal with your ex in a civil manner. Someday, you might even be able to recollect the good times you have together. Eventually, you will be able to open up to new relationships.
What You Can Do
Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, can work well as a treatment for depression. It is a form of talk therapy that is intended to improve moods and behaviors through changing thought patterns. It is effective for treating mild or moderate depression. Under the observation of a highly skilled practitioner, it can also help treat more severe cases. It is based on the idea that people have negative feelings and actions as a result of their beliefs and attitudes. By changing their core beliefs and attitudes, people respond by the way they feel and act in the present. A blend of cognitive and behavioral therapy directed at your thoughts as well as your actions and behaviors enables you to work on skills and habits that make it possible for you to function properly. This allows you to not succumb to negative thoughts and be careful with depressive episodes.
Body-oriented therapy is also seen as a form of great treatment for depressed people. It is a form of body psychotherapy where a therapist establishes a dialogue with the patient through body technique. Many therapists see the body as a means of communication. In particular, there is evidence suggesting positive effects of a dance movement therapy group on quality of life and depression. There is no clinically significant evidence to suggest that body-oriented therapy is more effective than other types of therapy and medication. But it is definite that for some people with particular conditions, body-oriented therapy improves quality of life and stabilizes moods.
The best variant is to both get therapy and take prescribed antidepressants under the doctor’s observation. You may feel that it is a real challenge to find a reputable therapist, especially if you live in a rural area or cannot afford it. It is worth trying, though. Searching for the antidepressant that will work best for you can also be a challenge.
Do not get frustrated when the first prescription doesn’t work. It is very common for people not to respond to the first antidepressant prescribed by a doctor and they often have undesirable side effects. It can take months to figure out the right treatment for you.
Furthermore, antidepressants can take months to start working. On average, you need to take an antidepressant for at least 6 months because certain active substances, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, have a cumulative effect.
As was stated earlier, self-therapy is acceptable primarily for situational depression. It should also be noted that those who have clinical depression have neither the strength nor mental energy to seek out any form of self-therapy.
People with situational depression have moods and behavioral patterns that can be modified by themselves.
To Deal with Rumination
One repetitive behavior that people display during or post-divorce is rumination when the individual finds themselves going through the same thoughts of regret over and over again in an unending loop.
The technique that deals with rumination is called Inviting the “White Bears” In. An idea to call intrusive and repetitive thoughts, ‘white bears’ belongs to psychologist Daniel Wegner who argues that fears should be met face to face in order to loosen the power it has over your brain.
In times of stress, our brain searches for a way out. When it fails to do so, it puts you in an endless loop of rumination that keeps you awake at night and stresses you. It takes away your mental and emotional energy. When you are unable to control the outcome of a situation, you need to be able to stay calm in order to react when time calls.
Divorce is a situation where everything isn’t just about you. Worrying about everything is counterproductive. However, many anti-stress techniques usually do not work or may not work for you specifically. For example, one technique is to assign a worrying time, which affect people differently depending on their personality and doesn’t work at all for some. Similarly, a visualization of happier times and mental counting your blessings will hardly work for down-to-earth and practical people. It can help to talk to trusted friends about your worries, but it may only have a short-term effect.
Meanwhile, Wegner’s suggestion to invite the White Bears in can really ease your worries. For example, you are still in the process of divorce and worry that your spouse goes to court because she refuses to negotiate regarding the children . To stop ruminating, you need to acknowledge the reality of your fears and worries.
Write down or think through all the implications of a worst-case scenario. As soon as you start thinking about it, your brain will start coming up with possible solutions You may discover that you are fine with accepting the least desired resolution or even consider tackling the situation, even if you prefer not to.
In some cases, this technique will need to be worked through together with a therapist. In any case, it is not a magical solution that will sort out all your problems instantly, but it will definitely help you sleep sounder at night.
Managing Negative Emotion
After you tackle your negative thoughts and rumination, you have to take care of your flood of emotions. If you find yourself reliving the negative experience of your divorce, you may find it alleviating to start to distance yourself from what happened consciously. Your task is to analyze your emotions rather than to get buried by them. Ask yourself why you are feeling the way you are. By doing so, you are not suppressing your emotions but getting control over them. It can help if you view the situation as if it’s happening to someone else and you are just analyzing what you see. The shift from what I am feeling to why I am feeling this way will keep you from reliving the negative moments and instead help you concentrate on a more analytical process. Whereas many people try to deal with negative emotions by distracting themselves through pleasure and new experiences, analyzing your emotional state is a more effective strategy because not only does it manage your emotions, but also gives you more self-awareness.
Writing is a known therapeutic technique and can help in many life situations. However, when it comes to using it as a form of treatment for depression, it should be used with care. Generally, writing techniques are not considered ‘psychotherapy’ because they do not help you get better on their own. Yet, as useful habits, they can help you better deal with your depression.
Writing techniques can be compared to a healthy lifestyle: it is good to eat well and exercise regularly, but such activities will not help you in case of a serious illness. Therefore, a habit of writing helps handle stress, improves well-being and increases concentration. However, if writing makes you feel worse, it is a signal that you need to stop using writing techniques and consult a therapist.
With that being said, writing techniques remain a great therapeutic tool. They simply need to be used with care.
One of the troubles of using writing techniques as a form of self-therapy in depression is re-traumatization. This is when you cannot get rid of the painful recollections of divorce by going through them again. In many cases, reliving a negative experience intensifies it rather than weakening it. Therefore, writing a narration about your divorce from the first or third person is not recommended.
If you think along the lines of “When life hands you lemons, sell lemonade” and imagine yourself as an author of a bestseller based on your divorce experience, it’s better to think twice. It will increase your rumination and will flood you with negative emotions, which you had already gone through in great pain to eliminate.
Furthermore, poring over your negative experiences on paper makes you see yourself as incompetent, weak, and immature. Psychologists call it ‘negative conclusions of self-identity’ where the individual concludes that he or she is a failure (“all normal people would deal with it within days and only I failed…”). Thus, writing about your divorce is highly unrecommended.
However, it is still useful to write on other subjects. Writing about things unrelated to divorce can work well for you. Therapists recommend depressed patients to keep a diary and write down their current thoughts and emotions and not bottle them up.
Even if you find the idea to find time and energy to go the gym off-putting, remember that you can pump your body with physical energy through a myriad of other ways. Even if you don’t feel it, your brain will produce endorphins from a walk in the park, a cycle around the neighborhood, or a swim in a local pool. Research shows that brisk walking for 20 to 40 minutes, three times a week helps ease the symptoms of depression.
Keep Up with Healthy Habits and Routines
Similarly, it is important not to disturb your healthy habits and routines. You will likely live in a new place after a divorce or will have new household chores that your partner used to handle. No matter what the changes are, your task is to get your life back to normal as soon as possible.
This means that you need to eat healthily, stay physically active, and get quality sleep every day. Make sure you have periodic health appointments and keep up with regular visits to the doctor.
Alcohol and drugs are negative coping strategies. They will get you into more trouble than help you.
Keeping yourself surrounded by people may be the last thing on your mind, but it can help remind you that you are not alone and that there is life beyond your circle of troubles.
In her TED Talk, Brene Brown states, "In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen." This connection requires vulnerability at a time when you may be feeling most rejected, raw and in most need of protection. Push through your fears (if you can) and reach out.
It is not necessary to force yourself to attend parties, but just being around your family and friends can help alleviate your symptoms of depression.
If you don’t have friends, it is time to make some. Join a support group where you can talk to other people who have also gone through a divorce. Isolating yourself you do not reduce stress. Rather, it raises your stress levels and affects your concentration.
Everyone needs at least one trusted person to talk to in difficult times. Simply sharing what you are going through can help you cope with any emotions you might be having. For this reason, talk therapy is very effective.
Find a Hobby
Post-divorce period is a high time to explore your interest. For many people, marriage is a time where their wants and desires are put under control for the greater good of the family. Many men and women refuse to enjoy hobbies or pastimes in order to not interfere with their children’s and spouses’ schedules. In some cases, it might be because their partner disapproves.
Now, you have the time and energy to do whatever you have always wanted to do. Have you always dreamed of skydiving or rope jumping? Or have you ever wanted to take up a dancing class? By signing up for a class, you not only find time to enjoy your life and invest time into yourself but also have the opportunity to make new friends.
There are a lot of advice and recommendations on pampering ourselves and being happy. We all definitely need our share of hedonic pleasures. The problem arises when we get used to everything: from the good to the bad. Researchers call this phenomenon ‘the hedonic treadmill’, whereby constantly having things that make us happy, you eventually lose a taste for them. For example, if you eat chocolate every day, you stop viewing it as a treat. As a result, eating it does not make you as happy as it used to.
Savoring is a technique that helps you get pleasure from things by anticipating them and treating yourself rather than making them a routine.
Get into a habit of parceling out your pleasures. For example, you planned to meet a friend. Anticipate your meeting with excitement and ‘savor’ the moment when you see each other. You bought something online. ‘Savor’ the time when you are waiting for the delivery to arrive. It is paradoxical, but anticipating something makes you appreciate it more and eventually makes you happier.
Think In Abstract Terms
Living under long-term stress you are too preoccupied with keeping yourself together and can hardly think of the future. You are so buried with details of your divorce and everyday living and so focused on your partner’s flaws that you may find it difficult to think in abstract terms.
Meanwhile, abstract thinking is a tool that can help you get through your depression. In contrast to a lot of wide-spread advice on visualizing your desires in greater detail, researchers suggest that abstract thinking is in fact more effective.
Thinking concretely can in fact narrow down your opportunities, whereas thinking in abstract terms will open up more possibilities.
For example, you may be inclined to visualize the person that you would like to meet is caring and nice. The details are not important. Your real desire is for companionship. If you think about companionship in abstract terms, you will realize that there are many other ways to obtain it. You can start volunteer work, meet up with a friend, start talking to your neighbor, or get in touch with someone from before if you need companionship.
Finally, Give Yourself Time!
Divorce is a life situation that you cannot control. Even if you started it, your partner also affects the way you both feel and act. For this reason, the best strategy is to give yourself time to work through the divorce and allow yourself to be sad, upset, and even depressed when need be.
Remember that by denying yourself of your feelings, you are not letting them go Instead, you are just bottling them up inside and forcing them to come out in less acceptable manners.
Any intense feelings must be lived through. Go with the flow and eventually, you will get better.