By Jann Glasser, Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT), Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), Coach/Psychotherapist, and Collaborative Coach – Collaborative Divorce Solutions of Orange County
Whether or not you’ve navigated emotional stress in your life before, you are in for a whole new experience during a divorce. Once the decision to divorce is made and the process is underway, don’t be surprised to find your heart pounding and your thoughts racing as if you were driving in the Indy 500. Fear and dread can grab you the instant you get an email, text or voicemail from your attorney, accountant or spouse.
It is all happening because you are being ruled not by your everyday brain, but by your brain on divorce; easily triggered, distraught and overwhelmed. You are reacting as if you are under attack, trying to function while stressed, sad, and sleep deprived. It’s not going so well, is it?
Divorce is one of the most significant losses and stressful life events people experience. When someone close to you passes away, your friends and family rally around you to support you and acknowledge your loss. But this time, there is no bereavement leave from work, no sympathy cards, and no gatherings to reminisce. Life goes on without skipping a beat and you are expected to do the same.
Not only are you expected to go on, but you are also expected to gather all financial paperwork, other information, make time in your schedule for additional meetings, phone calls, emails, help your kids cope, and be prepared to make major parenting and financial decisions that have long term consequences. No wonder you’re exhausted and overwhelmed!
Divorce can bring anyone to his or her their knees even if they have coped with emotional stress well at other times. A formerly well-adjusted, reasonable person becomes a raving maniac. Learning what is going on physically as well as psychologically in your body and mind during a divorce, you can learn how to choose effective coping strategies, and practice good self care and compassion.
Your brain is responding to the divorce as a threat. The part of your brain that manages emotion and the fight-flight-freeze response (the limbic system or mid-brain) kicks into high gear. We commonly refer to it as “the right brain.” This part of your brain is essential to keeping you alive. It looks out for threats and is quick to react.
However, it is not helpful for planning, making decisions, and considering consequences of your actions. The part of the brain that takes control when you are upset, angry, or scared (during much of your divorce!) is responsible for your racing heart, tight chest, and flushed face. It contributes to your confusion and indecision. When your brain is preparing for a fight or to run for your life, it has shut down access to the “thinking, reasoning” part of your brain (left brain). Unfortunately, it is this part of your brain that needs to be in charge when negotiating your divorce settlement, making financial decisions, working with your co-parent, parenting, and planning for your “new normal” and future. Suzanne Segerstrom, Ph.D. of the University of Kentucky, aptly describes this part of the brain as controlling the “Pause and Plan” response.
Coping effectively during your divorce involves shifting from the “Fight or Flight” emotional “right brain” responding to threat and putting the “Pause and Plan” within in your “left brain” in charge. This part of your brain executes a plan after evaluating information and considering consequences. When you are able to do this, you increase self-control as well as your ability to manage emotions, evaluate information, make decisions, and make plans.
How can you access “Pause and Plan” when your brain is locked down in threat mode? The following options help strengthen your “big brain” and promote resilience:
- Make sure you have the energy needed for your brain to optimally function. A healthy diet, regular exercise, and adequate sleep are essential to your body having the energy it needs.
- Excess sugar and alcohol are not your friends now. Drowning your woes in a gallon of ice cream or a bottle of booze won’t help you cope for long..
- Pause. Your emotional “right brain” is lightning fast. Your body and mind need time to slow down the reaction and realize your current situation, while stressful, is not life or death. Breathing slowly is a great way to use your body to send signals to your brain that you are not in mortal danger. Meditation, or daily mindfulness exercises can be a huge help here. It also gives you time to begin to think, engaging your “left brain”
- Heighten your awareness. Observing yourself and your situation is a function of the left brain. When you pause to observe what’s going on, you activate that part of your brain. This opens up options for you to consider and the opportunity to be less reactive.
- Seek support from others. Believe it or not, there is “good news” in how our body responds to stress. Not only does our body release adrenaline to help us jump into fight-flight action, but it also releases oxytocin (sometimes called the bonding, love, or cuddle hormone). This hormone encourages us to seek out support and physical contact from others. It also seems to help heal and regenerate heart cells! Our body and mind, in its’ infinite wisdom and complexity, is actually built to help us manage stress and heal a “broken heart.” Seeking out supportive relationships as well as receiving and giving hugs can help you calm down, pause, feel protected from attack, and as a result, be able to access your thinking brain.
- Change your mindset. Stress itself is not the main problem that creates the negative impact on our health and well-being, but it’s how we perceive the stress that is the problem. Instead of interpreting the stress in your life, the divorce, and your reactions to it as harmful to you, you have another option. If you interpret this hard time in your life as a difficult challenge; one that you have the courage and strength to rise above, you can emerge stronger and better. You will also be less negatively impacted by the stress!
- Practice self-compassion. Exercising this part of your brain not only can help you feel better about yourself, it can also contribute to self-control and motivation towards long-term goals. Next time you feel like getting down on yourself, try a little tenderness instead.
- Beef up the parts of the brain you want working for you during this difficult time; don’t keep them in hibernation or overcome by volatile emotions. Emotions are faulty navigational tools when used as the primary source of decision-making.
- Be open to new information and experiences. By definition, many aspects of your life change in response to divorce. You probably will have to take on some new roles, behaviors, and skills. You may even want to try something new.
New experiences, even negative one, create opportunities for growth. You can literally help your brain grow through new perspectives, trying new things and being open to new information. This can contribute to making better decisions, being more motivated, exerting more self control and being more compassionate. You can emerge as a new, improved version of you with an important life lesson.
Take this knowledge of physiology and mental health, and use it to find ways to optimize your resilience and essential brain functions during this difficult time. You might find the outcomes of your efforts are the silver lining in the divorce cloud, and the light at the end of the tunnel.
Divorce is painful. There is no way around it. The good news is that your mindset about it has a great impact on how damaging this stressful event will be to your mind and body. Attitude is everything!