Full transparency here: I’ve dealt with feelings of depression and anxiety through much of my adulthood. In fact, I brought it right with me into my marriage. Through it all, my wife has been a solid rock of support and encouragement for me and my mental health during those difficult times. And looking back, I’ve been able to catch a glimpse of what she was feeling for me:
I’m worried for his well-being. I know he isn’t himself. His heart is hurting. His mind is swarming. He’s just on edge all… the… time. There’s no life in his voice. He just has a sense of hopelessness, tension, defeat. And I just want him to be happy again so we can enjoy our life together like we once did.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Maybe you’ve had the same thoughts about your spouse. It’s difficult to see the person you love the most experiencing challenges like grief, sadness, anxiety, and stress. It impacts not only your spouse but also your marriage. And you want to help, but maybe you just don’t know how.
Fortunately, there is hope. How can you show care and support for your spouse’s mental health? Here are eight ways:
1. Remind them you are there.
One of the worst feelings someone can have who is experiencing emotional difficulties is feeling like they are alone in their predicament. The continual reminder that you are there for them, you’re there to listen, and you are not there to judge or think less of them because of what they’re going through means the world.
2. Encourage your spouse with The Big 3: Exercise, Diet, and Sleep.
These are the three best things we can do to help ourselves when our mental health is under attack. They are the “hubs” of self-care. Physical activity, especially cardio, and clean eating have been shown to improve emotional health. And I can’t tell you enough just how important sleep is to fight off stress, anxiety, and depression. Most people need 8-9 hours of sleep each night, and each one of those hours is precious to care for yourself. Encourage your spouse to maintain The Big 3 and join them in the mission to work out, eat clean, and sleep well.
3. Do everyday activities together.
When I’ve felt particularly out of sorts, my wonderful wife would invite me to go on an errand with her or to do something seemingly mundane with her around the house. The sheer act of being together and focusing on some activity — picking up the groceries, folding the laundry (lots of bonding happens over folding fitted sheets), getting the car washed (for an added bonus, jamming out to Led Zeppelin as your car shuffles through the automatic wash, an instant feel-good) — can help pull your spouse out of a funk.
4. Coach your spouse to choose their “Something to Look Forward to.”
Long ago, a friend of mine gave me this life-changing, simple piece of advice, and my wife has encouraged me with it: every week, choose that one thing that you’re going to look forward to on the weekend (or whatever the “end of the week” looks like for your spouse). It can be anything enjoyable: a hike, watching the football game, ordering pizza, eating that piece of cake in the fridge, a fishing trip, working in the yard, smoking some ribs, visiting your favorite fast food place. I’ve found that whatever setbacks I experience through the week, sometimes my “Something to Look Forward to” is what helps me to keep taking each step forward. Help your spouse find their “Something to Look Forward to” each week.
5. Experience some fresh air together.
There’s something about being outside in the open air and the warm sunlight that takes the edge off strong emotions. Invite your spouse to share some outdoor time, whether it’s hiking in the woods or sitting on the front porch to watch the sunset. You certainly don’t have to be an “outdoor person” to gain the benefits that clean air and the vitamin D from sunlight provides (which, by the way, has been shown to reduce depression and boost weight loss).
6. Be physically intimate with each other.
Physical touch, whether it’s sexual or non-sexual touch, like holding hugs or hand-holding, has been shown to help improve mental and emotional health, not to mention increase closeness and connection with each other. Healthy physical touch from someone who cares (that is, you) causes those feel-good chemicals to squirt through the brain, defending against feelings of sadness and anxiety. And don’t laugh, but scheduled sex is where it’s at. Hear me out. If your spouse is someone who, say, really enjoys sex, more than likely it’s a stress-reliever for them. When the two of you schedule your lovemaking, you give them something they can count on to simmer down the emotions while you, well, heat things up.
7. Encourage time with friends and family.
It’s easy for someone weighed down with heavy feelings to isolate themselves. Sometimes you just don’t have the energy to reach out to others. When I’ve felt like this, my wife would sometimes say something like, “Why don’t you call up your friend Brian and see if he wants to watch the football game?” Or, “Why not go over to your mom’s house and take her some cookies” Being with others helps a heavy heart. And sometimes a person just needs a shot of encouragement to make that connection. Encourage time with someone they are close to when the mood is down.
8. Go on dates.
This is arguably the most important item on the list. Try to have a weekly date together. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive or even outside the house. As a matter of fact, take some of what’s above and make it a date: the “Something to Look Forward to,” time spent outdoors, ordering a pizza in, a walk around the neighborhood, a Netflix movie, or maybe even scheduled intimacy. The point is to have a meaningful time together. And remember: because your spouse is dealing with heavy emotions, you may have to be the one to prompt these dates.
If you observe that your spouse’s mental health doesn’t change for the better or gets worse, encourage them to visit a professional counselor. Offer to go with them if they are nervous or uncertain. Try to help them understand that talking to a counselor doesn’t mean they are “broken” or something “is wrong with them.” They are simply there to talk through some of the difficult feelings they’re experiencing.
One more thing: the battle to manage strong emotions like anxiety, sadness, or stress is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t expect instant improvements with a walk in the woods or a night out on the town.
And let’s not ignore the fact that your spouse’s struggles with mental health are hard on you as well; you feel the exhaustion and stress they feel. Be sure you are taking care of yourself. Get plenty of rest and exercise, and make sure you have a healthy support system you can turn to. Practice good self-care.
You are your spouse’s biggest support. And you have the power to instill a sense of hope in them with your love and encouragement. Choose at least one of the strategies above to do this week. Assure your spouse you are there for them no matter what. Go on a date. Share a walk outside. Whatever it is, let them know you are right there beside them. Believe me: it will mean the world to them.
***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***
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