A stroke may affect cells in areas of the brain that control emotions and behavior, so your loved one might act differently after a stroke. Your support can help them cope — and recover.
The brain requires constant blood flow to work properly. A stroke can happen when something blocks this supply of blood or a blood vessel in the brain bursts.
Since blood and oxygen can’t travel to your brain as they typically would, brain cells begin to die. This is why many people have a harder time doing certain things — speaking, eating, managing emotions — after a stroke.
Emotional changes after a stroke may include feelings of:
These changes in mood and emotion, along with other stroke effects such as difficulty communicating and fatigue, can have an impact on your relationship. In fact, some evidence suggests up to 38% of couples report conflict after one partner’s stroke.
Anger, in particular, can add tension and distress to an already challenging situation. If your partner begins to experience unusual anger after a stroke, these eight tips can help you support them — and yourself.
Navigating your own emotional distress is an important step toward being present for your partner.
A local support group provides the opportunity to connect with other people who understand what you’re going through, according to Lauren Barry, a Florida-based licensed marriage and family therapist.
Talking with others in the same boat can help you express your feelings about your partner’s stroke and the changes you’ve noticed in them instead of bottling up those emotions. Support groups can also offer the chance to form friendships and learn new coping mechanisms.
To find a local or online support group, you can try asking your therapist, doctor, or church for a referral. You can also check out these organizations:
When you don’t know how to help your partner cope with behavioral or mood changes, Jessica Miller, a licensed mental health counselor, advises simply asking what you can do.
For example, you might say:
- “I’ve noticed you seem a little frustrated lately. How can I help take some stress off your plate?”
- “It seems like you’re dealing with some big changes after the stroke. What can I do to help you adjust?”
It may offer your partner some reassurance if you start this conversation, especially if they tend to have difficulty asking for help.
What’s more, asking what they need could open the door to increased closeness and intimacy — and research from 2020 suggests that stroke survivors who feel greater intimacy with their spouse have more motivation to work toward recovery after a stroke.
A 2020 study found that many couples feel frustrated if they can’t enjoy the same activities they did together before one partner’s stroke. Over time, this change can lead to a sense of boredom and stagnation.
It’s true you may find it difficult to maintain all of your old hobbies. Miller recommends focusing instead on what you can do together, which could mean trying a new hobby or activity, such as:
These kinds of activities can help keep your partner’s mind occupied and engaged, Miller says, which can help with their rehabilitation. They can also serve as bonding opportunities — and as an added bonus, they may also provide a mood lift and a sense of joy and accomplishment.
Barry says it’s important to recognize your partner’s achievements throughout their recovery from a stroke — even seemingly “small” ones, like fixing something around the house or going for a walk around the neighborhood.
More than half of stroke survivors feel like a “burden” to their spouses, according to a small 2017 study. Stroke survivors who still felt like they mattered to their partners, on the other hand, were more likely to report doing well during recovery.
With that in mind, making a point to regularly express appreciation for your partner could make a difference.
For instance, you might:
- let them know how proud you are of their progress at work
- thank them for helping you prepare dinner
- show them you care by listening actively when they share their thoughts and feelings
- praise them for maintaining an optimistic perspective during such a challenging time
- offering physical affection, such as a hug or kiss, as you might have before their stroke
Pressuring your partner to do things they don’t yet feel ready for — whether that’s returning to work, hosting a family gathering, or picking up an old hobby — may only lead to further frustration or anger.
Instead, Miller recommends practicing patience as much as possible throughout their recovery.
“Many stroke-related symptoms tend to get better with time, and that includes behavioral and emotional changes,” she says.
If it feels like your marriage isn’t quite the same, you may find it helpful to know that a majority of couples do regain relationship closeness following a stroke.
As many as
Since post-stroke depression can negatively affect motivation to work toward recovery, it’s important to recognize the signs and encourage your partner to seek treatment as soon as possible.
Irritability often shows up with depression, so it’s possible that this change in your partner’s mood may point to depression.
Miller advises paying attention to the following signs, which can suggest depression rather than anger:
- changes in appetite
- insomnia or oversleeping
- feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
- less interest in activities they used to enjoy
- low energy and fatigue
- difficulty concentrating on tasks or making decisions
If these symptoms persist for longer than 2 weeks, Barry recommends offering to help your partner find a therapist who can offer more support. You can also encourage them to share these symptoms with their doctor or another trusted member of their care team.
A stroke can present many new challenges beyond emotional changes, and it may have an ongoing, far-reaching impact on your partner’s life.
That’s why Miller and Barry both strongly recommend encouraging your partner to consider therapy to help them adapt to the many changes they may notice in their abilities, mood, and emotions.
A therapist can teach your spouse new strategies for coping with anger, sadness, fear, and other distressing or overwhelming feelings.
Specifically, Miller suggests trying cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which can help people work to change unhelpful thought patterns that have a negative effect on mood and behavior.
For example, if your partner believes that they’ll never get better, they may begin to feel angry or depressed as a result. A CBT therapist can assist them in shifting those thoughts to more neutral or positive alternatives, which can promote a greater sense of hope, self-acceptance, and confidence during their recovery.
Research suggests CBT can help treat both depression and other emotional distress after a stroke.
Consider couples therapy
A licensed marriage and family therapist can provide a safe space to air out your concerns and frustrations and guide a meaningful discussion about how you can both take responsibility for repairing the issues in your relationship.
You may notice your partner seems more irritable, angry, or frustrated after their stroke. These changes may spark some worries about your partner’s health, as well as the health of your relationship. But it may help to keep in mind that these mood changes often improve in time.
Don’t underestimate the role of your support in helping your partner maintain a hopeful and optimistic outlook. Offering patience, empathy, and understanding can help boost their confidence and fuel their motivation to work toward recovery.
Rebecca Strong is a Boston-based freelance writer covering health and wellness, fitness, food, lifestyle, and beauty. Her work has also appeared in Insider, Bustle, StyleCaster, Eat This Not That, AskMen, and Elite Daily.