Even under the best of circumstances, divorce sucks.
Whether you are blind-sided by an unhappy spouse, or you’re relieved that your marriage and your relationship is finally coming to an end, you can expect to ride an emotional rollercoaster along the way.
Divorce challenges our self-worth and our identity. It changes our relationships with others, both in our inner and outer circles.
In the end, you may feel crushed, or you may be excited to move forward to new adventures and new relationships. But make no mistake about it, you’re going to experience some unpleasant feelings along the way.
Divorce is a form of loss, and while it is not exactly like the feelings you’ll experience if somebody actually passes away, the stages you go through will pretty closely follow the same script. And that can lead to divorce depression.
The Five Stages of Loss and Grief
Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first proposed the various stages of loss and grief in her groundbreaking book On Death and Dying.
While everyone will process these emotions in their own ways and in their own timeframe, they have generally become the accepted norm for people who go through a form of mourning when a valued relationship ends. People may try to bury one or more stages of these emotions, or attempt to hurry through them, or get stuck in one or more of them in an abnormally long period before they can move to the next stage.
The five stages include:
Stage 1: Denial and isolation. As a way to protect ourselves against the initial shock of divorce, we may attempt to control our emotions and try to cling to a false reality of how things were, instead of a new and jarring reality. You may wall yourself off from your own emotions and from interacting with others who will only make matters worse by trying to talk you through the initial shock before you are ready to do so.
Stage 2: Anger. At some point, a person will realize that denial cannot continue and this will trigger feelings of frustration. There may also be feelings of betrayal that will give way to outbursts of anger at various times.
These may come out of the blue and bubble up to the surface, or anger may be triggered by having to confront the changes that have been forced upon you. Even when you are the initiator of a divorce, you are going to experience anger at well because of a sense of failure or shame that you could not make this important part of your life work the right way.
Anger can be extremely harmful to people you still care about if you misdirect your negative emotions the wrong way. Be aware when you start to go overboard.
Stage 3: Bargaining. You may attempt to make a deal by trying to negotiate changes that you’ll make in exchange for saving your marriage. You may promise to go to counseling, stop hiding money from your spouse, or quit doing drugs or drinking alcohol as a way to bargain your way into the preservation of your marriage. You may try to make deals internally, strike a bargain with God, or attempt to buy more time to work on the issues that could save your marriage.
Stage 4: Depression. This stage is dangerous because it is accompanied by feelings of defeat and a lack of self-worth. This is when deep mourning and sadness can kick in, and usually follows when a person is exhausted from trying to bargain their way back into marriage or can no longer keep up the amount of anger required to fuel their emotions.
Depression is also a sign of admitting defeat, a realization that a new reality has come to pass, whether we want it to be so or not. Depression can come in waves when you least expect it, in private, in a crowded restaurant, while you’re shopping for groceries, or in any other number of situations.
Stage 5: Acceptance. In this final stage, you embrace what has happened. You make your peace when you finally realize acceptance is required before you can even begin to realistically rebuild your life. Your emotions will stabilize and you’ll find a calmness and peace couple with introspection as you begin to put your emotions in their place. Getting to acceptance can be the hardest stage to reach because you can get stuck in any of the other stages for long periods of time.
Once you realize that resisting acceptance only prolongs your ability to heal, you may still have issues to process, but that self-awareness will ultimately lead you to the place you need to be that enables you to move on and truly feel happy again.
Focusing on Depression
By now, you probably have a certain degree of understanding about what depression is, what it feels like, and what the symptoms are. But to better deal with depression in a divorce, you need to take a closer look at it.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, depression is a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act. It can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems that can decrease a person’s ability to function at work and at home.
Depression affects about 1 in 15 adults at any given time, and while depression may come and go, it’s estimated that about 1 in 6 people will experience depression at some point during their lives.
Symptoms can range from mild to severe and can include:
- Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
- Changes in appetite — weight loss or gain unrelated to dieting
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
- Crying spells
- Loss of energy or increased fatigue
- Increase in purposeless physical activity (e.g., hand-wringing or pacing)
- Feelings of pessimism
- Slowed movements and speech (actions observable by others)
- Feeling worthless or guilty
- Difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions
- Thoughts of death or suicide
- Feeling sad or having a depressed mood
In general, women are more likely to experience depression than men in divorce. However, studies show men are less likely to seek treatment and talk about their feelings of depression. This is attributed to the fact that men tend to be more isolated than women and may have a harder time processing their emotions while going through a divorce.
Men and women also experience depression differently. Depression in women often manifests as sadness, worthlessness, and guilt. Depression in men will cause irritability and difficulty sleeping as well as binge drinking or using drugs.
It’s also important to point out that depression is different from sadness or grief. While they may share some of the same characteristics, they are not the same thing.
When a relationship ends, feeling sad is normal and the grieving process is natural and unique to each person.
With grief and sadness, pain comes and goes in waves, many times intermixed with positive memories of the person who was lost. But with depression, a person’s mood is decreased permanently for a longer period of time, generally two weeks or more.
With depression, feelings of self-loathing and worthlessness are common. But with grief, a person maintains their own self-esteem.
It is possible for both sadness and depression to take place at the same time, and when they do, the grief is more severe and lasts longer. Understanding that they are different is critical to seeking the right kind of help or support.
It should be noted that depression due to traumatic life events is different from clinical depression. Although they will manifest symptoms in similar ways, depression due to life events is sometimes called adjustment disorder or situational depression. Again, understanding the root causes of your depression are one of the major keys to treating it properly.
When to Seek Help
Don’t be a hero and feel like you have to take on the demons of depression all by yourself. Depression has claimed many victims throughout time, and there is no shame in admitting you need help.
In fact, it’s foolish to not seek help when you need it.
Be honest with yourself.
First things first. Talk to a therapist. If sitting down with a therapist face-to-face feels intimidating, consider online therapy.
In fact, with online counseling apps, you can choose from thousands of licensed therapists at affordable rates. Get the emotional support you need from the convenience of your home by video, phone, email or text with sites like BetterHelp. Use this link to get 10% off and get connected with a therapist >>
If you have serious symptoms of depression during a divorce that last for several months, call your doctor. Depression can paralyze you from taking action, but once you go in for an appointment, you will feel better because you have taken the first step to regaining a measure of control in your life.
Make sure you document any symptoms and let your doctor know about any medications or supplements you are taking.
Depending on your situation, your doctor may suggest that you seek a psychologist to talk through your problems and get actionable items that can help pull you out of your tailspin.
Your doctor may also suggest seeing a psychiatrist instead. The main difference here is that a psychiatrist can prescribe antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications. A psychologist is not licensed to do so.
Medications can get you through the toughest parts of your divorce and can help you heal. But medications can also be a source of destructive behavior and addiction if not administered properly. Some medications work better with depression, and others work better to relieve anxiety, which also often occurs in divorce.
There is a common misconception regarding depression, anxiety, stress, and psychiatric medication, according to Psychology Today. The misconception among users is that a pill will end their suffering. All of their mental and emotional problems will be washed away with one prescription or one refill or one capsule. That is simply not the case. Medications help, but they are not a cure-all.
During a divorce, there is a real need among many people to simply want to find a way to dull their pain and find a quick fix for their depression. But that kind of thinking is dangerous, especially if you are a parent.
Children need a functioning adult to help nurture their growth and keep their pain and disruption to a minimum. While certain medications may seem like attractive, quick fixes to the anxiety and depression issues that you face, they may not be as beneficial to your children, who are looking to their parent for guidance and reassurance during a divorce.
Other alternatives to medications can include treatments such as acupuncture or massage therapy, relaxation techniques such as yoga or some type of sports class, or even art therapy as a way to engage your mind and release endorphins through a creative outlet.
Depression and Child Custody
You may be wondering if you are suffering from depression and you have children, can your spouse use your condition against you?
Unfortunately, the answer is probably yes. At least to some degree.
When the source of your depression comes from an unhappy marriage that is characterized by an abusive spouse, an adulterer, a controlling spouse or one who is reckless with money, you can easily fall into feelings of anger, worthlessness and sadness.
When you seek help for situational or clinical depression, you could be treated with antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications or psychotherapy. But in a bitter marriage, a spouse may not be above using the against you to gain an upper hand, especially when it comes to child custody.
Depressed and unhappy spouses often want to leave their spouses and a bad marriage, but they’re afraid to do so because they do not want to take a chance on losing their children.
In a heated custody battle, a spouse may try their best to gain the upper hand by introducing this kind of information to the court. He or she will make the claim that you are a drug addict who can’t properly care for your children because of your drug use or mental state.
Judges always place the best interests of the child in a divorce above all else, so they will be very interested in learning more about your prescription drug use and state of mind. To show that you are capable of caring for your children, you should be prepared to demonstrate to the court that:
- Your prescriptions were prescribed by a doctor
- You are taking your medications according to your doctor’s directions
- You are not abusing prescription drugs or illegal drugs
- Your medications are not adversely affecting your behavior
- Your depression is not preventing you from taking care of your children
Divorce, Depression and Suicide
Let’s start with the more important thing first.
If you’re caught in a deep funk or having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). It may be easier to seek help from an anonymous and trained professional than to admit you’re struggling with somebody you know.
Nobody really likes to talk about the possibility of suicide as a result of divorce, but it exists.
Suicide is exacerbated by mental issues that frequently crop up in divorce. Of course, depression is the one that stands out, but PTSD which can be present in a divorce situation is also a leading cause of suicide as well. In the United States, PTSD affects about 8 million American adults, with women at greater risk than men.
PTSD is an anxiety related disorder that takes place after an extremely stressful event. It is most commonly associated with military combat, but it can also take place after sexual assault or any kind of physical violence as well. In that vein, divorce certainly qualifies as a traumatic event for many people.
Social isolation, which is often a by-product of divorce, can also pose a suicide danger as well. Admitting you’re lonely can be a difficult thing to do, so many people suffer in silent agony. That isolation can lead to depression and without a support network of people to ask for help, it can lead to thoughts and actions of suicide.
Because men are often not the parent who winds up with primary custody, they are more likely to suffer from a loss of contact with not only their spouse, but with their children as well.
The feelings directed toward an ex-spouse and the ones directed at the courts that granted her custody, as well as bitterness, anxiety, depression, reduced self-esteem, and a general sense that life “is not worth living” can manifest themselves and combine to create a dangerous and fatal situation.
A lack of contact can cause real problems for an average guy, because his wife and kids are his primary, and sometimes only, source of support. So, maintaining strong connections is crucial for continued good mental health.
This goes hand in hand with the fact that divorced men drink and smoke more often, engage in riskier sex, and are more likely to avoid doctor visits and die of preventable and treatable diseases.
Men who are not married account for 62% of all male suicides, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
One study from a few years ago confirmed that divorced people have higher suicide rates than their married peers, and that divorced men are as much as eight times more likely to kill themselves than divorced women, overall. Another recent study by the National Institute for Healthcare Research indicated that divorced people are three times as likely to commit suicide as people who are married.
It’s estimated that 80% of people who commit suicide exhibit signs of their intentions before they kill themselves. This can include actions such as:
- Giving away prized possessions
- Increased drug or alcohol use
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Withdrawing from friends
- Withdrawing from social activities
- Making out a will, making funeral arrangements
- Loss of interest in personal appearance
- Risky behaviors and thrill-seeking
- Dwelling on death or suicide in poetry, music, art, or creative writing
- A suddenly elevated mood due to the fact that some people actually cheer up when they’ve made up their mind to kill themselves, as if a burden has been lifted
Obviously, several of these behaviors mimic signs of depression, but in a more intense form.
17 Tips for Overcoming Depression During and After Divorce
Every person is different and how they react to a divorce is going to be as unique and as individual as they and their circumstances are. What follows are several suggestions to help you fight through depressions while you’re going through a divorce or after your divorce has taken place.
The one thing that you must understand about depression before you can take any steps is that depression can often immobilize you. The hardest part is getting your butt in gear to take actions that will help you to feel better and to heal.
The biggest battle you will wage is between your ears and just like divorce sets in motion a downward spiral, action tends to create an upward spiral out of the blues and to a better place.
Keep in mind that everyone will probably experience some form of situational depression as part of the normal grieving process. But when you can’t shake that situational depression, and it lingers longer than it should, you need to be aware of what is happening and take steps to go in a new direction.
Here are some strategies to consider:
1. Don’t freak out if you get down in the dumps. It’s normal to go through emotional mood swings during and after a divorce. Just be aware of what you’re experiencing and how long those feelings have been with you. At the start, you’re going to feel depressed more often. Time does help you heal. But if you can’t shake the blues and you’ve been separated or divorced for several months, then you need to move from denial, shame and inaction to positive and immediate steps to help you move forward.
2. Give yourself permission to grieve. Mourning the loss of a marriage is normal, but if you allow anger to override your feelings, you may be doing more harm than good. When you grieve, you are processing, and if you don’t process things, your emotions can get bottled up and that can make you depressed.
Feeling the pain of loss is not fun, but it is an essential part of your longer healing process. Grief is exactly what you need to feel so that you can move on. Stopping grief actually prolongs the process.
3. Eat healthy. For many people, food consoles them when they are depressed. If you have a weakness for chocolate, or ice cream, or chocolate ice cream, then it’s okay to enjoy them from time to time. But finding comfort in excess calories is not going to make things better. In fact, eating the wrong food can affect your mood and actually make you feel worse.
4. Exercise. Research has repeatedly shown that exercising is a great way to combat the negative effects of depression. Exercise creates an actual biological chain of events that can improve your mood, help you get better sleep, lower your blood pressure, protect against heart disease and diabetes and many other benefits.
High intensity exercise releases endorphins. These are the body’s feel good chemicals that creates the “runner’s high” you may have heard about. Low intensity exercise spurs the release of proteins called neurotrophic or growth factors. These cause nerve cells to grow and make new connections, resulting in improved brain function that makes you feel better.
Don’t overdo it to start. Begin with 5 or 10 minutes of sustained activity and gradually the amount of time will build up. In a period of a few weeks, you’re sure to notice a difference. The key is to find an activity that you like so that you’ll want to keep doing it.
5. Get better quality sleep. Depression can cause insomnia, so you need to pay attention to how well you sleep and take steps to calm your body and mind before bedtime. This might include taking a warm bath or shower, reading a book, drinking a cup of chamomile tea or other similar activities.
Do not engage in too much screen time late at night, whether it’s a television, computer or cell phone. Those are all designed to engage your brain at a time when you need to be unplugging to give your brain a break.
6. Find ways to socialize. Ugh…this one can be particularly hard for an introvert who is also depressed. But men and women are designed to be social creatures by nature and walling yourself off from others is flat out not healthy.
Find what social situations you are comfortable with and gravitate to those. It may be spending time in a library, having a favorite waitress serve up a meal or drinks at your local watering hole, or losing yourself in the crowd at a sporting event or concert.
If you prefer, hang out with a close circle of friends, or a single friend that you can decompress with and talk through your feelings. They can not only offer support, but can also help change your state of mind when needed.
7. Give yourself permission to enjoy “you” time. Some people in a divorce are depressed and feel guilty about their situation, making it even harder to find joy in their lives. Beating yourself up is a crappy strategy and won’t solve anything.
Instead, take a break and do something you truly like doing. It may be reading a book on the beach, going for a drive with the stereo turned up and the windows rolled down, or pampering yourself with an hour-long bubble bath.
If you have kids, you can either include them in something fun or if needed, find a babysitter so that you can have the alone time that you deserve.
8. Accept help from friends and family if you need it. Divorce is a big deal. When you add depression to the mix, you’re fighting a tough battle and trying to go it alone increases the difficulty and duration of your struggles. You get no medals for trying to be a hero by going it alone.
Even if you’re the most independent person in the world, if you need help, ask for it or accept it if it is offered. Your true friends and family members will be understanding and will step up to help you with little things like meals, watching children if you have appointments, or possibly even helping with household chores or running errands.
Keep in mind that at some point in our lives, we all go through rough patches and the favors extended to you today are favors that you can return in kind to others at a later date.
9. Get professional help if you need it. Divorce is messy. Divorce is emotional. It can consume you and in some cases, won’t let go.
So, if you need professional help from a therapist or seek to improve your mood through medications, don’t concern yourself with any potential stigmas that you may perceive as being shameful. A lot of people have gone through what you’re going through, and you might be surprised to learn at just how many of them have reached out for help.
As an adjunct, keep in mind that you may not be the only one battling depression. If you have children, they’re sure to be affected by a divorce. If they need counseling, get them help as well.
10. Consider keeping a journal. One way to empty your brain and to process your thoughts is to put them down on paper (or a computer screen). Be honest and vent as much as you need.
What you write may even surprise you. Several thoughts can bubble under the surface for a long time, but when you release them from your brain, you can get unstuck and start to move forward.
You can use what you write as the basis for getting help, or you can go back and review your notes over time to see just how much progress you’re making.
11. You need to remember that you still have a future. Although it may be different than the one you imagined, after a divorce you do still have a future to look forward to. Gradually, your feelings on loss will start to be replaced by new things to do, new people to meet and new places to go.
It’s important to set some achievable goals. This puts your brain in gear and takes your mind off of the trauma that you’ve been through. When you reach a goal, you’ll naturally feel a sense of accomplishment, which is in direct opposition to depression.
12. Consider volunteering. Nothing takes your mind off your own problems like helping other people overcome their problems. Volunteering also lets you meet new people and is a step toward rewiring your social life. There are literally dozens of opportunities to get involved in any community in America. If you’re down in the dumps, pick one and make a commitment to help others.
13. Go easy on the drugs and alcohol. The only thing worse than having depression coupled with a divorce is also having a nasty recurring hangover to go with them. You’re going to be tempted to self-medicate to some degree but finding help at the bottom of a bottle is the wrong place to look. Drugs and alcohol are called depressants for a reason.
14. Be careful about rebound relationships. Your self-worth may be damaged so much that you could be tempted to jump into the first new post-divorce relationship that offers itself up to you. Maybe it will work out for you, but if you’re depressed after a divorce, you may also be desperate to do anything or be with anyone to pull yourself out of your emotional tailspin.
Whether you are trying to replace your partner or you think it will help you move on more quickly, ease up a little bit until you can figure out how you’re feeling and if this is the right relationship for you at the present time.
15. Have you suffered from depression in the past? If you have, then you’re more likely to be affected by it again. Divorce will only increase your risk profile and you need to be especially vigilant to the symptoms of depression if they appear.
16. Do not dwell on what you cannot control. If you want to max out your anxiety and anger, try thinking about all the things beyond your control in a divorce. You’ll sink into depression quickly if you invest emotional energy on what your spouse is doing, or what you have been left with after your divorce is finalized.
You can put your best arguments forward, but ultimately the courts will decide who gets what and what is fair. Wishing for a different outcome is a waste of time and damaging to you in so many ways.
Looking for more helpful divorce tips? Here are a few of our favorite resources: